Players and owners talk late into the night, discussing ways to split the substantial pot that constitutes National Football League profit. The weeks-long owner-imposed lockout gave rise to union decertification, litigation and, most recently, a new round of labor talks. While uncertainty surrounds the upcoming NFL season, few seriously believe that the games will not be played. There is too much money at stake, too much to be lost at a time when the impact of a cancelled mid-1990’s World Series and a cancelled mid-2000’s NHL season remains fresh in all minds.
The NFL season will be played. After weeks of media and negotiating room battles, players and owners will eventually put aside differences and announce to the world that they have entered into a partnership for the coming years. All’s well that ends well, as Shakespearean scholars might say. Backs will be slapped, hands shaken, greenbacks exchanged, and players will march onto the field in full uniform, secure in their share of the billions that ticket sales, television and advertising revenue provide annually to the sport of football.
Neglected in this scenario is the fan – the third party to the contract that makes possible the sharing of wealth between players and owners. If sport is purely entertainment, as many insist when justifying high player salaries (if rockers and actors can make millions, why shouldn’t professional athletes?), the fan is a necessary part of the show.
There is a reason why games are played in front of packed stadiums, with cameras spanning the rabid crowds and quarterbacks’ calls unheard over crowd noise. It makes for better television, and football, above all sports, is very much a creature of the tube. Sundays are no longer days of rest; they are days of football doubleheaders (tripleheaders, if we count the league’s Sunday night entry), replete with pre-game shows that open with the rising sun and commercials that pad the pockets of players and owners with advertising revenue.
Would the effect be the same if the stadiums were empty? Would players elevate their performance to their present levels if the cheers were not there? Would home viewers tune in to watch games played with “canned” background crowd noise?
As an integral part of the broadcast product, the fan is very much a partner in the business that is professional football. Without the fan’s contribution (both financial and spiritual) to the sport, football does not exist.
Yet, when the time comes to negotiate finances, the fan is a silent partner. He is not privy to the numbers exchanged between players and owners and has no say in the gathering or distributing of revenue. His principal role in the partnership is that of investor, and he will never see a penny of the billions of dollars he pours into the industry. His benefit from this partnership will be unquantifiable - a vague notion that somehow, by investing money and emotion into the NFL season, the quality of his life will improve (a questionable premise for fans of the Detroit Lions, whose teams are routinely amongst the worst in the league).
The fan has not been invited to NFL labor talks. He sits outside the meeting rooms while players and owners discuss how they will divide the money he will invest. Eventually, when players and owners reach agreement, he will be told how much he will pay for a ticket to a Sunday game. And he will accept his fate reluctantly because, in a world where only the loudest are heard, no one will listen to one who has no voice.