Monday, April 18, 2011

The Deafening Sounds of Silence

Shhh... Listen closely. Do you hear that? That's the sound of every major sports site not covering the NFL (at least, not on the front page), just a week and a half before the biggest off-season day of the year.

Okay, I'll grant a bit of time bias here. I'm managing to post this on the Monday after the first round of the NBA playoffs...a weekend which saw - in a league driven by chalk and often joked about for shady reffing to help ensure favorable match-ups in future rounds - game one upsets of a 1 and 2 seed on their home courts. My timing could have been better.

But let's come to grips with a few things here. First, how often over the last month or so have we seen a page-one cover of an NFL story NOT involving the lock-out? I honestly can't remember any. Second, float around the sites I linked. The top story is all basketball, but the second/third stories are including baseball and college football on some of those sites. College football! And not "How will losing XYZ player in the draft next week impact ABC team next season?" ... More like "How will XYZ recruits impact ABC team?"

The problem is, the NFL seems to be getting far less coverage than it has before. During a year when the NFL moved the opening round of the draft to prime time to increase the viewing audience, they're killing interest in it due to the ridiculous fight between the two sides. Sports talk shows are barely discussing the draft. Mock drafts aren't being featured on every site, they're being buried in the NFL links. The NFL is on the back burner for the first time in a long time.

It's safe to assume the interest from the average NFL fan is likely wavering here, as well. I'm not an "average NFL fan" in my opinion. My family owns some exceptional PSLs for the Ravens, and I drive 3.5 hours one way four or so times a year (leaving my wife and two young daughters for the day) to go to games. On the Sundays I spend at the house, I'm non-responsive in front of NFL Sunday Ticket anyway. I write, a lot, about it, and I'm in four to five FFL leagues annually. During the month prior to the draft I'm often reading endless mock drafts and sometimes preparing my own mock draft. (Side note, thank GOD my prediction on the Ravens pick didn't come true, though Oher hasn't exactly torn up the league himself.) Instead, I think I've read one of Don Banks' mocks, and that's pretty much it. I have the draft next week marked on my calendar, hoping that will make sure it reminds me that it's happening. If a guy like me is having trouble getting amped up for the draft, how is the "average NFL fan" - the one that catches a dozen or so of his team's games each year on TV, maybe buys a jersey every few years, might take his kid to a game every so often - going to feel?

I have no actual evidence to offer here. No stats showing how many front page stories were featured last year vs. this year. No polls showing fan interest is on the decline. The only thing I have is an email I received from the NFL, looking for fans to attend Day 2 and Day 3 of the NFL draft live, which is the first I've heard of their having problems selling the event out. Everything else is all anecdotal.

But the NFL, both teams AND players, should be taking note here. They seem to be acting as though no damage will be done until games are missed. They seem to believe that fans will simply come back after the new deal is struck, and the $9 billion machine will go back to printing money like it was last year.

But I don't buy it. I think damage is being done here. Damage that may not be able to be repaired, at least for a few years. The owners and players need to start discussing the possibility that they're not going to be splitting up a $9 billion pie, they might be splitting up a $6 billion or $7 billion pie. And that may still sound like a pretty big number, but sit back and think about whether or not you'd be willing to take a 20% - 30% pay cut simply because you were in an argument with your boss.

At this time of year, the silence the NFL is hearing across the media world about its sport's most hyped off-season event should be a giant red-flag. I just fear it's falling on deaf ears.


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