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Think back to the spring of 2011. The fight between NFL owners and players was still raging, and you hated both sides. You booed commissioner Roger Goodell at the NFL draft in April. And you jeered union boss DeMaurice Smith during his commencement speech at Maryland in May. A pox on both of their houses for threatening the game that America cannot live without. Whenever teams returned to the field there was bound to be damage to the game's appeal. "I'm done with football," one of you informed me in Boston's Logan airport in June. "They're killing the golden goose."
And then, five months ago this week, the lockout mercifully ended. Free agency commenced, players signed and teams reported to training camp. You may not have forgotten, and you may not have forgiven, but you, the fans, have come back. Although the 2010 season was the most-watched on television since 1989, through 14 weeks the 2011 season was just 1% behind. If some of you have walked away, others have taken your place. Entering last weekend, 23 of the top 25 TV broadcasts this fall were NFL games. (Only one event from another sport, Game 7 of the World Series, was on that list.)
Think about what has happened in the last five months. The NFL made a 10-year pact with its players, guaranteeing that games will be played, uninterrupted, through 2020. (That would be 33 straight years without missing a game.) Then, last week, the league extended its network TV contracts through the 2022 season at a collective 60% increase. Lockout damage? Never happened.
"With all the uncertainty in the Western world," New England owner Robert Kraft said after the TV deal was struck, "to get a long-term labor deal that's great for both sides, then to extend our TV deal for another decade at a significant increase, is mind-boggling."
Indeed. Pundits can point to any number of explanations for how the NFL emerged unscathed from a lockout, but I'll give you my three:
• Star power. The lockout didn't change the fact that the NFL invents stars and stories better than any other league in history. In mid-October, Tim Tebow was a backup on a bad team. Today the Broncos estimate that they turn down 95% of media requests for the charismatic quarterback who piloted Denver to seven wins in nine starts, moving the team atop the AFC West and creating, last week against the Patriots, TV's most anticipated game of the year. And it's not just Tebow. On any given week, anything can happen. Just ask Colts faithful, who on Sunday witnessed their team's first win in 14 tries—over the playoff-hopeful Titans. Or Packers fans, who suffered their first loss—to the lowly Chiefs. Which is fine. Green Bay is loss-proof and, apparently, recession-proof. When the team issued stock shares at $250 apiece earlier this month, it pocketed $46.3 million in the first 48 hours. Brett Favre is so yesterday. Aaron Rodgers is the new star, the new story.
• Fantasy football ... and women. At Thanksgiving I sat with my family and some friends of my daughter's in San Francisco. In my youth, at my house, the TV was turned off at dinner; the women had no interest in Thanksgiving football. But this year the set never went dark. Five of these six women were following fantasy teams, and during blessings one of them thanked God for Thursday-night football. I can't put a number on it, but I know that the interest from females in what I write and say and tweet is up dramatically.
Adweek estimates that 27 million Americans play fantasy football, and another study has 5.4 million of them as women. Fantasy is a gateway to following football on TV and the Internet. By the time fantasy leagues drafted this summer, a good month after the lockout ended, it was clear that the labor dispute hadn't dampened excitement for the season.
• A forgiving media. Clearly the NFL is a meal ticket for the media, mainstream and otherwise. After the lockout, ESPN announced it was adding 500 more hours of NFL programming per year. NBC plans to increase its NFL presence when it launches its NBC Sports Network in January. And then there's the draft, which has become almost a separate sport, with months of lead-up programming flooding TV and the Internet. As one TV executive told me, "The NFL is the perfect programming because it gives us something to do almost year-round."
After the TV deal was struck, Kraft, who chairs the NFL's broadcast committee, shook his head at what his sport has become, six months after the golden goose had looked cooked. "When we approached the networks and told them what we wanted in rights fees," he said, "they all gulped. You could see it was a tough sell for them. But they all agreed. And the good thing, from my perspective, is I think that they all walked away happy. People like doing business with the NFL."