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June 16, 2011

Gridiron Gridlock

The musical question asked by Hank Williams Jr. on Monday nights may take on new meaning this fall. "Are you ready for some football?"

The musical question asked by Hank Williams Jr. on Monday nights may take on new meaning this fall.

"Are you ready for some football?"

No, really, owners and players, are you ready yet? Because we'd really like to see some if you're done with your silly little labor dispute.

The answer remains to be seen as the NFL lockout enters it's fourth month with no end in sight and fans across the county and on the Grand Strand beginning to worry about what they're going to do with their Sunday afternoons and Monday nights this fall.

Or what they're going to talk about with their friends, co-workers and, dare I say, significant others.

Or if there's such a thing as a fantasy figure skating league. "Yes, dear, I'll take the trash out right after this triple toe-loop."

Sure, sports and fans have survived labor timeouts before. The NFL strike of 1987 saw replacement players, or scabs, cross the picket line to play and fans still tuned in to see sub-par football under the guise of the NFL.

Major League Baseball lost the 1994 World Series over a players' strike that hit the sport so hard that it took Cal Ripken Jr., and a bunch of steroid-injected, home run-hitting beasts years to bring fans back to the fold, some of whom still have not returned.

The NHL had a lockout during the 2004-05 season and the sport still hasn't fully recovered. The league continues to have its primary TV contract with Versus, where it shares basic-cable time with mixed martial arts and monster truck racing.

But hockey is a far cry from football. And baseball, well, it might be the national pastime, but football is the national full-time.

The NFL is so much more popular than the NBA, NHL and MLB and has become such a big part of Americana that the absence of the sport would have a profound impact on the national identity and culture.

A fall without football is difficult to fathom, but with each passing day with the lockout in effect the national nightmare comes closer to reality.

Here's a look at what it will take to keep the unthinkable from happening, and the unthinkable that will happen if it doesn't.

Labor Pains

The lockout is really no different than any other labor battle between management and workers, like a teachers' strike except with significantly more zeroes attached to the end of the dollar signs that are in dispute.

In March, the owners opted to lock out the players after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, which is an umbrella term that covers all the factors of employment.

The NFL Players Association responded by voting to decertify the union, allowing individuals to sue the league under anti-trust laws. Those lawsuits continue to be tied up in federal court, with the latest hearing on June 3 yielding no firm decision on the legality of the lockout.

However, the court ruling will have little bearing on whether or not there will be NFL football come fall. A decision in favor of one side may give it more bargaining power at the negotiation table, but this is an issue that must be decided by the parties involved, not the courts.

At the heart of the matter (are you sitting down?) is money. The owners and players are trying to figure out how to share $9 billion in projected annual revenues, which sounds like a great problem to have.

The general public's gut reaction is usually against the players. How can they complain about earning millions to play a game? The answer is because the owners are making billions off the players.

The average base salary for an NFL player topped $1 million for the first time in 2010. Since marquee names such as Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger earned more than $14 million, there were a handful of no-names playing for the league's minimum salary of $310,000.

Compare that to the NFL's total estimated revenue of $7.8 billion in 2010, meaning the teams earned an average of more than $243 million. And not a single owner suffered a career-threatening injury last season.

The total is projected to increase by 20 percent in 2011, but the owners contend that player salaries are increasing at a higher rate than revenue.

"We have never claimed that teams are not making money," New York Giants CEO George Martin told ESPN. "We're just not making as much of it. We need to recalculate this deal a little bit."

The owners are asking the players to take an 18 percent pay cut under the terms of the new CBA, so you can understand why the NFLPA isn't excited about the proposed deal since the players are the ones putting their bodies on the line.

Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro wide receiver and recent winner of ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" Hines Ward admitted in a recent ESPN interview that the owners and players "make way too much money ... to be in the situation to have a lockout. That's what's disappointing."

But disappointment is a mild term for the fallout this fall if there is no resolution in time for the opening kickoff.

Black Sundays

"And on the Seventh Day, He rested ... and watched football."

OK, so that isn't an exact biblical quote, but football has become as much of an American tradition on the Sabbath as church and family dinners. A Sunday without football seems downright sinful.

But forget about the morality of a football-less autumn for a moment and think like the players and owners - it's all about the money. The players and owners aren't the only ones who will be feeling the financial pinch if the lockout cuts into the 2011 season.

A recent study by the NFLPA estimated that each NFL city stands to lose $160 million in revenue, lost jobs and businesses that rely on the games if the lockout lasts all season. If part of the season is salvaged, you're still talking about $20 million per home game.

"There are a lot of local business that would suffer," said Cincinnati Bengals and former Coastal Carolina University wide receiver Jerome Simpson. "I would hate to see businesses close because we can't reach an agreement."

But it's not just NFL cities that would take a big hit. Grand Strand area sports bars, as well as establishments across the country, would see a major drop in Sunday business without football on the big screens.

Don Fonda, owner of Foster's Cafe & Bar in Myrtle Beach, said a lockout that shortens the season would be devastating to his Sunday crowds in the fall. NFL game days are always packed compared to, say, a Sunday any other time of year.

"There's no comparison," said Fonda, whose bar features multiple TVs so fans of all sorts can catch their teams thanks to the DirecTV Sunday Ticket. "We don't even open on Sunday afternoons the rest of the year, but it's one of our busiest days during football season."

Marty Mullin, owner of Murphy's Law in Myrtle Beach and Carolina Forest and Murphy's Law South in Garden City Beach, agrees: "It would suck," he said.

"It would kill our business in the fall. We make a lot of money during football season."

Another sector that would feel the blow of no NFL games is the Fantasy Football crowd, which features an estimated 20 million players on the World Wide Web, according to a report on And those figures don't include local mom-and-pop leagues.

Mike Lambert, owner of Mammy's Kitchen in Myrtle Beach, is commissioner of his local league that has been in operation for more than 12 seasons. He and his fellow team "owners" aren't sure what they'll do without crunching stats and making mock trades.

"We've already been talking about it and we don't know what we'll do," Lambert said. "We always keep up with our stats and scores during the games and talk trash back and forth when one of our players score. It's the only thing that gets me through the summer."

And then, of course, there's Joe Fan, the average spectator who roots for his team on Sundays and spends the rest of the week either bragging or looking forward to the next game.

Those are the ones who may suffer the most, and ironically, they're also the ones to ultimately blame for the current labor situation.

The Fans that Feed Them

There was a time when baseball was considered America's game. No other pro sports league, including the NFL, could touch Major League Baseball with a 10-foot bat.

But that has changed during the last few decades, coinciding with the explosion of television in our society. As TV taste buds changed from "The Wonderful World of Disney" to "The World's Dumbest Criminals," so has the shift in sports in favor of football.

There are many theories about why football has become so popular among the masses - it's violence reflects an increasingly violent society, it's a sport ideally suited for gambling, the fast-paced action is fitting for the average U.S. short attention span.

But none comes close to having the impact of TV, which generates the bulk of revenues that the players and owners are fighting over. TV contracts account for almost half the league's total revenue, with the rest coming from ticket sales, sponsorships, apparel sales, etc.

Last year the NFL earned $3.785 billion in TV revenues, or $118 million per team, and those figures are expected to increase beginning with the new TV deals scheduled to start this season. DirecTV's annual deal increases from $700 million last year to $1 billion in 2011.

So how can the networks afford to shell out such big bucks? Because of the fans who watch the games in droves. CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN wouldn't be forking over those kinds of dollars without an audience, so the fans' insatiable appetite for football is what drives the entire system.

The networks are delivering their advertisers a huge chunk of the overall market, including the coveted male 18-35 demographic. So in effect, fans are paying the advertisers to pay the networks to pay the league to pay the players. We are the root of the evil we despise.

A small but growing grassroots group of fans are organizing their own strike to try to bring both sides to the bargaining table and, eventually, the football field.

A Facebook page called "Fan Strike" encourages visitors not to buy any NFL-licensed gear until 2013, but the well-intentioned group is a bit misguided. As if that alone will show 'em who's boss.

Jersey sales and other apparel account for a small amount of the overall revenues, while TV is the NFL's bread and butter. It's like boycotting Domino's by not ordering any bread sticks to go with you pizza. The pie is where the real dough is made.

So if fans really want to have an impact, vowing to change channels and turn away from the sport is the only effective weapon. But it's sort of like crack heads boycotting their dealers for lower prices - addicts don't bargain shop.

The NFL knows the country's dependence on football will bring fans back in droves the moment the season kicks off, whether on time or for an abbreviated season, so the players and owners can act without fear of any serious repercussions while they decide how to divvy up our dough.

As long as fans remain enslaved to the game they love, we get what we deserve. Meanwhile, the players and owners will continue to earn more than they deserve.

Countdown to Kickoff

Exactly when the lockout will end no one can say for sure but both sides were meeting this week. But given the determining factors of time and money, here are the likely scenarios:

The NFL lockout has now been in place for more than 90 days. It doesn't sound like much until you look ahead at the calendar.

NFL teams traditionally report to training camp in July, so we're already on the verge of seeing the first real football-related impact of the lockout. Some teams are holding unofficial workouts, but without coaches and playbooks around it's not the real thing.

The first preseason game is scheduled for Aug. 7 with the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. We're less than two months away from that historic day, which would put a real downer on the induction ceremonies if no active players are present.

And the first regular season game is slated for Sept. 8 between the last two Super Bowl champions - the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, so the lockout is already halfway to missing the season's kickoff.

But Sept. 8 is far from a drop-dead deadline for both sides to reach an agreement. The NFL has contingency plans for an abbreviated season, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.

And there's always college football, which could see a spike in ratings without the big boys playing pigskin. There's even been some talk about moving some college football games to Sundays, although the NCAA is unsure about that plan.

But for all the disagreements between the players and owners, - salaries, an extended 18-game season, retirement benefits, etc. - money is the determining factor.

If there's still no football by late August to early September, both sides will start feeling the pinch in their pockets, and only then will they be motivated to make a deal.

"There will be football this fall. I guarantee it," said St. Louis Rams linebacker and former CCU standout Maurice Simpkins. "Exactly when? That I can't say for sure."

Without a new CBA by September, both sides will be looking to sign something, even if both sides consider it an unfair deal. A bad agreement that involves making any kind of money beats the padded pants off no deal that involves making no money.

So, for all the bold talk coming out of both sides' lawyers, look for some sort of deal to happen before we get too deep into what's supposed to be the 2011 season. Even a prolonged lockout could result in a partial 10-to-12-game regular season before the playoffs.

And for all the bold talk about fan strikes and boycotts, it's also a safe bet that you and all your rowdy friends will be sitting side by side on bar stools salivating for the first game to kick off.

And that's the real bottom line to the owners' and players' battle over their bottom lines.

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