When the Green Bay Packers face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday, it may be the last American football game for some time.
National Football League team owners and players are mired in a labour dispute, with the current agreement expiring on March 3. If the two sides do not reach a new deal by the time training begins this summer, the next lucrative NFL season is in jeopardy.
Players are demanding higher salaries as compensation for playing in an increasingly brutal sport. The NFL and team owners, meanwhile, want to extend the current 16-game season by two games to generate more revenue.
With the last and biggest game of the season on Sunday, in which the Packers, from Wisconsin, are favoured to beat the Steelers, there is no resolution in sight.
“We believe there is a strong chance of a lockout during the 2011 season, given the distance between the two sides over a number of issues including player compensation and an expanded 18-game regular season,” said Anthony DiClemente, Barclays Capital entertainment analyst.
Reports indicate that the players’ union and owners have begun negotiations in recent days. But the prospect of a disrupted season is looming over Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The economic impact of a lost NFL season would affect everyone from team owners to bar owners. The NFL players’ union estimates that a lockout would cost each of the 32 cities that are home to an NFL team $160m in local spending and 3,000 jobs, while television stations would miss out on prime advertising.
Sports have emerged as a tent-pole for the US television industry. Last year’s Super Bowl was the most watched programme in TV history, attracting 106.5m viewers, according to Nielsen. Big games routinely attract between 30m and 60m viewers.
Disney, CBS, News Corp and NBC Universal collectively pay the NFL $3bn per year for rights to broadcast NFL games. They would still have to pay for next season in the event of a lockout, although they would recoup those fees plus interest in later years. “If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, a lockout would have significant, though not necessarily damaging, implications for the networks,” said Mr DiClemente.
Nonetheless, it would cost the networks one of their top programming draws. “I hope and pray fervently that there isn’t a stoppage,” David Hill, Fox Sports Media Group president, told the Los Angeles Times recently. “We know what happens to sports after a strike or a lockout; people turn away and it takes a while for them to come back.”
Local markets would take a hit, too, said Gregory O’Dell, president of the Washington, DC Convention and Sports Authority.“It’s big business. Not only would the players not get their high salaries, but all the other businesses surrounding the sport will be hit too.”
The NFL’s image has been tarnished in recent years as a growing body of medical evidence has suggested that professional play can lead to long-term health problems for many players.
“Ultimately, the players bear the risk of adding two more games onto an already grueling 16 game schedule,” said Mr DiClemente. “The health risks associated with professional football are well-documented and will certainly be a factor in these negotiations.”
The NFL acknowledges the health risks, but emphasised that the games must go on. “It’s not just the health of players that concerns us,” Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, said in a January letter to fans. “We must ensure the health of the league.”
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