Like in any conflict, there are innocent bystanders standing between the NFL players and owners. As the two sides argue in mediation and litigation on how to split up roughly $9 billion in revenue, people barely making enough money to scrape by are going to be put in harm's way.
In Chicago, those potentially being affected include the 1,100-plus people who work at Soldier Field during football season, and we're not talking about the likes of Matt Forté and Lance Briggs. There are vendors selling concessions, such as beer, food and apparel, ushers directing fans to their seats and crowd-control personnel in charge of keeping the 63,000 members of what the team calls the "4th Phase" orderly. Added to that is the stadium staff, who do everything from ensuring the grass is grown correctly to operating the elevators, and a group of off-duty police officers, whose job description includes breaking up fights between drunks in the stands.
That doesn't even come close to listing all of the people who don't necessarily have a job connected to football but will feel as much of an impact as anybody if games are missed. Workers at downtown Chicago restaurants, bars and hotels, cab drivers and parking lot attendants, all of the clothing stores in the entire region that sell Bears merchandise all will be lighter in the wallet if football is missed in 2011. A Bears Sunday is big business in the Windy City, where major damage could be done by the lockout.
"It would be a substantial loss of revenue, loss of exposure if they missed games," said Mark Stern, the owner of the Weather Mark Tavern, located a half-mile from Soldier Field. "The Bears are Chicago. They mean a lot to everyone, but to the businesses downtown and near the stadium, they are a huge reason why we are here. Not having a season would be awful for us."
I know some of these people who will be affected personally. Besides being an associate editor for Pro Football Weekly, I also work part-time as a seat vendor at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. This summer is the ninth season I've been employed there, selling hot dogs, bottled water, Old Style beer, etc. Many of the vendors that I work with at the baseball games in the spring and summer also are the ones walking up and down the aisles at Soldier Field in the fall and winter, selling their products and earning a commission. To them, the lockout is more than just a few news stories to read on the web and something to be concerned about in two months. It's their livelihood.
"It would be a major loss of money," said an experienced Wrigley Field and Soldier Field vendor, who asked that his name not be printed for fear of getting in trouble with his employer. During the 2010 Bears season — which featured 12 home games thanks to the NFC divisional and championship playoff games added to the two preseason and eight regular-season games — the vendor said he made between $100 and $200 per game on average, selling beer in the crowd. Workers selling shirts, hats and other gear at stands set up throughout the concourse generally bring in even more money.
"It's frustrating because we are just working stiffs trying to make a buck. We're like a kid in the middle of a divorce, just begging for scraps. Seems like we, along with all the fans, are at the mercy of (the players' and owners') greed," he added.
Due to the down economy, a prolonged stretch of cold, wet weather and the awful play this season of the city's two baseball teams, the full-time vendors are already behind their usual pace, as sales at Wrigley Field have been as poor off the field as the Cubs are on it. Add in a rising possibility that Soldier Field will be empty save for some seagulls on Aug. 13, when the team's home schedule is supposed to kick off with a preseason game against the Bills, and there are plenty of people already in panic mode. Vince Pesha said he has tried to give some advice to those vendors, but it's difficult because of the circumstances. Pesha serves as the Chicago sports and entertainment division director for the Service Employees International Union — which represents the workers at venues all across the city.
"We're telling (union members) to save their money, but you see what kind of year it is," Pesha told me as the vendors waited out a rainstorm before a Cubs game in late May. "It's hard to save money you don't have."
For now, there's nothing the people who make a living through football can do other than sit back, watch and hope the players and owners come to their senses. The clock is ticking, and thousands of people, in Chicago and around the country, are hoping they don't go from being innocent bystanders to lockout casualties.
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