You nestle into your recliner in the warming glow of a flat-screen TV. You convene with friends at the neighborhood sports bar. Perhaps you swaddle yourself in layers and head to the stadium. No matter how you spend these last few weeks of NFL games, savor the experience. As the clock winds down on the 2010 season, the prospects for 2011 look increasingly bleak.
The owners—most of them sensationally rich from businesses having nothing to do with football—remain united. The players' union, headed by a compromise candidate, DeMaurice Smith, is perceived as being divided. Every argument militating against a work stoppage can be turned on its head: (Why would a business generating alltime-high ratings and revenue in a sluggish economy even consider taking the golden goose to the packaging plant?) (If the NFL does this well in a recession, it just shows that fans are hooked and it can overcome a seasonlong absence.)
The current collective-bargaining agreement expires on March 4, and as we await a Hail Mary at the negotiating table, we would also do well to ponder: What would an NFL-free 2011 look like? The Panthers would win even less often than they did in 2010. We'd be spared the real-time public unraveling of Brett Favre. 60 Minutes would air at its regularly scheduled time in all regions, not just on the West Coast. But seriously, how deeply would we be affected?
Some would say, ultimately, not that much. Consumption often can be a zero sum game. If fans don't go to stadiums on Sunday, they'll just transfer that discretionary spending to movies, concerts or the driving range. Robert Baumann, an economist at Holy Cross, co-wrote an academic article in 2006 determining that if the NFL left the state of Florida, it would not cause a "statistically significant" impact on overall commerce, as fans would simply substitute college football and other entertainment options.
No impact, really? The NFL generates $8 billion in revenue by itself, but its ripple effect on other businesses is exponential. Start with the loss of the marketing and advertising platform the league represents; one of the great appeals of the NFL is its demographic. "I think companies are just going to say, 'There's no other viable way to reach men like this, so we're just not going to spend the money,'" says Robert Boland, professor of sports business at NYU's Tisch Center. "Some loss doesn't get substituted; it just fades away."
Television could lose as much as $3 billion in advertising revenue. Not for nothing are networks dispensing $4 billion a year for NFL games—the source, in many ways, of this labor kerfuffle in the first place. At a time of diminishing ratings for most programs, and with Hulu and DVRs undercutting the effectiveness of advertising, the NFL is singularly robust. Appointment programming, they call it. Sunday Night Football was the only program that made the top 25 for NBC for total viewers. Ordinary midseason NFL games have outdrawn World Series telecasts. Of 2010's 50 highest rated programs, 27 have been NFL games, including eight of the top 10. No amount of reality programming or CSI spin-offs can replace that.
The $4 billion fantasy football market would be decimated, and that would cascade down. What happens to so many websites when we aren't clicking a few times an hour to check out stats?
Similarly, the absence of the pro football would be bad for Las Vegas—to say nothing of the impact on the neighborhood bookie. It's no accident that the country's most popular sport (by far) is also the most popular gambling sport (by far). According to figures released by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the Super Bowl alone can generate nearly $100 million in legal wagers. Gambling experts contend that illegal NFL wagers could top $100 billion in a season. No games, no gaming.
And there would be more losses, some too complex to quantify here. A lot of beer will go unquaffed. Bars and restaurants that do a brisk business on Sunday would suffer. So would the banks (and, in some cases, cities) awaiting debt service on the empty stadiums. On the other hand, church attendance would soar.
In the absence of the NFL, it's unlikely that American sports fans will finally warm to soccer and cricket and rugby. We will, though, consume more American sports, starting with college football. With no NFL games on Sundays, opportunistic conference commissioners (we're looking at you, Larry Scott of the Pac-10) will likely try to televise games throughout the weekend.