TROUBLE IN PARADISE?
The pro football strike has been over for five weekends, but now another kind of walkout is plaguing the NFL: Fans have been staying away from stadiums in vast numbers. On the Dec. 12 weekend, for example, a total of 244,000 tickets to the 14 NFL games played either weren't bought or weren't used. That means a startling 27.3% of the seats remained empty, compared to last season's average of only 6.2%.
Seven games, half the schedule, were blacked out on local TV last weekend because of the large number of tickets still unsold 72 hours before game time. The Dallas Cowboys were blacked out locally for the first time in 44 games, or since Oct. 2, 1977. In Buffalo's three home games since the strike, 82,548 tickets weren't sold—more than for all the Bills' home games the previous two seasons. The Browns averaged more than 24,000 unsold tickets for their first two post-strike home games—10 times the 1981 number—and last Sunday, for the first time since 1962, failed to sell out a home game with the Steelers. When the Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Los Angeles Raiders on Dec. 12, a sparse crowd of only 26,307 turned out, leaving 51,790 empty seats—41,054 of them unsold. The New York Jets drew only 28,147 against visiting Tampa Bay, the smallest crowd at Shea Stadium since the Jets moved there in 1964.
All three TV networks have experienced lower ratings for NFL games. For the first four weekends after the strike, ABC and CBS were down 16% from a similar four-week period a year ago (although the drop was nowhere near as severe in a season-long comparison). NBC was off 4%. And TV can no longer be counted on to automatically provide the megabucks the NFL is used to. The networks and the league have already been negotiating downward adjustments in payments because of games missed during the strike, and the TV people are thinking about discussing further adjustments because of the low ratings during the "second season." The drop in ratings means advertisers aren't getting the bang from the buck they had anticipated, which is a matter of considerable concern for the networks.
Every team lost money during the strike. On the average, the figure was roughly $5 million per club. In its aftermath some teams have been hurt much more than others. Eight of the league's 28 clubs have sustained 82% of the NFL's decline in ticket sales. Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt says, "I won't call it a crisis, but I think it's a major concern when you can't fill the stadium. The teams share TV money equally, yes, but some of them are selling 50,000 tickets while others can't sell nearly that many. If Kansas City, New Orleans, New England, Baltimore and a few others all of a sudden start drawing only 25,000 a game, they won't be able to compete economically. This is a fragile situation."
Signs of what's really in store for the league won't be clear until next spring, when orders for 1983 season tickets start coming in. If those orders are down markedly, there will indeed be trouble in NFL paradise.
At the moment, though, predictions are conventionally rosy. Explanations for the stay-aways are pat. The eight-week strike left fans irritated and confused. Those who aren't angry find themselves unable to get a handle on what a 4-2 record means in relation to the shortened season and tangled playoff system. Tex Schramm, general manager of the Cowboys, says, "Obviously a lot of fans have lost interest in the races."
Browns owner Art Modell says, "This is a temporary thing, but what we have to do is promote again. We can't just open the doors and expect to win back instant support." Mike Lynn, general manager of the Minnesota Vikings, adds that he wanted the season resumed after the strike no matter how few games were left on the schedule so that fans could "vent their anger" this year, express their feelings and get it over with.
Bing Devine, president of the NFL St. Louis Cardinals and a former baseball man, says, "Time takes care of things like this. There's a definite parallel with the baseball strike. Last year the Brewers couldn't even fill their stadium for the playoffs. This year they could have filled the place twice. Just remember: Baseball broke all records for attendance this season, just one year after its strike."