NFL doesn't have to worry about losing fans

Posted June 02, 2011 @ 3:18 p.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

You know when your girlfriend dumps you, and your buddies reassure you by saying, "don't worry, they always come crawling back?" The NFL owners are well aware that all of you fans will come crawling back whenever the season gets under way.

The first game, or two or three, could be canceled and the NFL still would get its usual soaring ratings for the first games of the season, no matter how bitter fans are, and an informal poll of some fans helped confirm that.

This is just another ace in the hole for the owners during this labor mess that takes its next step on Friday when the lockout appeal hearing begins. Major League Baseball had to wait until the home run chase and Cal Ripken's streak in 1998 to regain its fans after the 1994 strike, the NFL should have no such problem. Fans might not be paying much attention now, and if they are, they are frustrated, but they'll be raring to go, even if Week One is in October.

As someone who covers the NFL for a living, I'm obviously immersed in the litigation mumbo-jumbo that has taken over as the only pertinent news for the sport, but most football fans are tuned out, although that's not an anomaly this time of year — June is usually slow in football news. But it's even easier in 2011 to ignore the NFL, especially when you're sick of Roger Goodell's broken-record-rhetoric of "we need to get back to the negotiating table" and when the biggest news comes in the form of informal workouts of players not in pads.

PFW colleague Mike Wilkening pointed out this week the exciting sports outlets for fans last weekend and how the NFL is hurting its brand. The pay cuts teams are making and the length of this lockout are diminishing the league's brand in the eyes of the public. The league has certainly lost in the court of public opinion, regardless of Goodell's calls with season-ticket holders. And DeMaurice Smith hasn't done the players' association a whole lot a favors in the public's eye. But I don't believe any of that will have any impact on fans returning to the game when the NFL does resume.

The die-hard fans are frustrated that free agency has yet to begin, but for the majority of fans, all that matters is that the season is played so they can have their fantasy football drafts, place their bets and watch their teams on Sunday.

I've seen writers tell fans that if they want to make a difference, they should decide not to renew their season tickets and stop buying merchandise. That's the equivalent of a bug on the windshield of the owners' private jets. They don't care if you decide not to renew your season tickets — on to the waiting list! And according to a report this week, season-ticket sales are actually increasing, something that doesn't shock this writer.

As frustrating as this lockout is, I know that the average fan will return to the game once the season kicks off as if the work stoppage never happened.

I decided to take this theory to 20 of my non-journalist peers who qualified themselves as big NFL fans. I should mention that this theory is far from groundbreaking, but with pessimism growing on the labor front, I was compelled to double-check to see if people had been so put off by everything that moods had changed. I asked each fan this: If the start of the NFL season is delayed, how will that impact your enthusiasm for Week One, whenever that is?

They overwhelmingly responded that the lockout would have little-to-no impact on their excitement to watch their team take the gridiron, even if that first game is in October.

"I can't see myself holding a grudge once it's back. I won't be able to help myself (from watching)," a Redskins fan said.

"I would go right back to watching the NFL. No hard feelings, no grudges held and no boycott," a Bears fan told me.

"If they pushed it back further, like canceling six games, I can't say I'd be as excited. But just a couple games? I would still be real excited," said a Jets fan.

Some fans, though, did say that while they would still watch with enthusiasm, they wouldn't ignore the impact of the lockout.

"I would be just as excited about watching football as I always am in September. But it would always have an asterisk next to it in the back of my mind," said a Browns fan.

A pair of fans even told me that their excitement would be greater if the season were delayed, as their eagerness for the NFL to begin would have been building. Most fans I talked to did point out that whether or not a full season is played does make a difference in their excitement.

The informal poll is an extremely low sample size, but it further illustrated why the owners can feel safe as this dispute drags on. Goodell knows just like I do that even in the worst-case scenario that the season doesn't start on time, he won't have to jump through hoops to get the fans back.

Because as bitter as they will be, and as badly as fans will want to stick it to the owners for their greed that has led to this lockout, they will all come crawling back.

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