Opinion

Time for compromise and creativity in ending NFL lockout

Duke Hipp Contributor

Are you ready for some football?!

Ok, it’s only May. Good point. But if you’re a football fan — more specifically an NFL fan — those six familiar words strung together could be interpreted as more of a taunt these days than a question. That’s because the league is in the midst of its longest work stoppage ever with little evidence of it ending any time soon. If you’re scoring at home, today is Day 63 of the Not-So-Great NFL Lockout of 2011.

How did we get here? When the league’s owners and players association (NFLPA) failed to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) by an early March deadline, the die was cast. That’s simple enough. But the legal proceedings and strategic posturing that followed have been anything but simple. The NFLPA decertified itself as a union, followed by the league initiating the lockout. Then the players association won an injunction that lifted the lockout, and days later the lockout returned when the league’s appeal brought a temporary stay until a June 3 court hearing can sort things out. Throw in player-led workouts, salary cuts for some team and league staff, a lawsuit or two, and a growing lack of objectivity among many in sports media covering the carnage, and you get the picture. It’s one fine mess.

The NFL continues to be king of American sports. Its product is a cash-making machine, generating an estimated $9 billion in revenue just last year. And the league’s fan base is without question the largest and most loyal around. But could this protracted stalemate between the two sides be testing that allegiance? A new poll seems to suggest so.

Results from an Adweek/Harris Poll survey released last week indicate that almost 1 in 5 Americans will be less likely to watch when and if the game returns in 2011. No doubt, the images of millionaires and billionaires feuding over where the NFL financial lines should be drawn are taking a toll. And with the U.S. unemployment rate at 9%, gas prices around $4 a gallon, and inflation on the rise, football fans are growing weary of a litigious standoff between the league’s players and owners that seems more than a little tone deaf.

There is hope, however. Court-ordered mediation talks began anew between both sides starting yesterday in Minneapolis. With any luck, the two camps will compromise equally, find middle ground, and reach a reasonable solution together and outside of the courtroom. Given the lack of progress produced by previous mediation efforts, that may be a tall order. But considering the growing drumbeat of fan discontent reflected in last week’s poll, perhaps a renewed sense of urgency will prevail.

If so, the standoff’s conclusion presents an opportunity for the players and owners to mend fences with fans and sponsors alike — and maybe inject a little camaraderie (and levity) where it’s sorely needed. Instead of a standard post-resolution advertising buy saying, “We’re sorry; we’re stronger than ever; and we’re open for business,” the league should save its money and get creative.

Here’s an idea. What if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith were to leave the Minneapolis mediation and retreat to their own conference room to reignite negotiations? No entourages, no teams of attorneys, just the two men hashing things out. Think the media might cover that?

Imagine the possibilities for NFL sponsors’ product placement alone! En route to brokering a deal, the duo could have Gatorade sent over to quench their thirst, Papa John’s pizza delivered to fend off hunger pangs, and Pepsi and Bud Light provided to wash it down with — all charged on a Visa card no less. And when it’s all over but the shouting, invite the media circus in to watch Goodell and Smith confer with their lawyers on Motorola cell phones over Verizon’s mobile network.

The big finish would deliver the paperwork spelling out a shiny new CBA, a handshake for the cameras, and an announcement by the two that the league will make a grand gesture of gratitude to the fans during the 2011 season as thanks for their loyalty. If Goodell and Smith feel compelled to pepper in a few fist-bumps and high-fives, even better.

Of course, this is more of a marketing and public relations fantasy than an idea. Just the same, the opportunity at hand in Minneapolis is very real.

Here’s hoping the league’s principles hammer out a new CBA before the June 3rd hearing, end the NFL work stoppage, and send a creative thanks in the direction of those whose loyalty warrants it. Now there’s an idea worth toasting — with a Bud Light of course.

Duke Hipp is president of ImpactSport Communications and editor of the blog, Good Sports, Great Stories. He previously served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President, Director of Presidential Correspondence.