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Power to the Football Fans -- Why Sports Fans Have More Clout Than They Think When It Comes to the NFL

Well, it's official. It now appears that sports fans will not be watching and enjoying NFL football games in 2011. This is because the NFL and players broke off negotiations and failed to to agree to a new contract that would allow a 2011 season. Currently there is no current contract in effect that would allow a football season while negotiations take place.

If negotiations do not resume to allow a contract to be made, this will be the first football "work stoppage" since 1987.

Sports fans recall with great anger the 1987 NFL players strike. At that time it was the NFL's second work stoppage in five years. It was more like a strike than a stoppage because games continued to be played, which allowed teams to receive monies from TV revenue, while replacement "scab" players took the field because the NFL Players Association walked out.

This rag tag football masquerade only lasted three games for a total of four weeks before cooler heads prevailed and NFL owners and players settled their differences and entered into a contract. The strike did great damage to the game as fans blamed both the NFL and players for a spectacle that no one could deem or accept as professional football.

The current dispute involves three main issues: How to split revenues between players and unions; whether to add two regular season games to the NFL season and whether to implement a rookie salary cap.

While most of the disagreements boil down to how total revenues will be divided between owners and players, the over-riding goal of sports fans (and the businesses they support in concessions, bars and restaurants, and media) is to resolve the dispute in advance of next season. 

The players and owners do not have much time to salvage the 2011 season. A "lockout" today is meaningless if in fact no games are currently being affected. The clock however is ticking down to a planned season this summer.

It is clear that fans who are the foundation upon which sports has been built and sustained is treated with contempt by those who feed off them.

Whether it be the commissioner who runs the league, the owners of the teams, or the players who takes the field, there is little sympathy in hard economic times by fans who cannot fathom why the parties cannot come to agreement on how to divide nine billion dollars of fan generated revenues between them.

Howard Bryant of ESPN said it best in his article entitled, "Will NFL, Players realize Fan's Power?" when he said the following:

"The faster the owners and players realize the world can function perfectly well without a National Football League, the faster the two sides will realize just how good life is for both. The faster each regains respect for the people who buy the tickets, buy the jerseys and create the coveted ratings, the faster this labor strife will be over -- and forgotten. After all, by being willing to spend money on football religiously, you the fans are the ones who give the generally unmarketable skill of throwing a football 60 yards on a line any value at all."

Football fans let's be honest. We may lose some NFL games, but what we've really gained is power. 

The question today, as the NFL calls its players irresponsible and as the players head to the courts seeking some form of outside authority to hold the league accountable, is what will the fans do with this power? Will they take the old, tired positions and blame the players, calling them greedy for wanting to be a true business partner? Will they take the "shut up and play" position we've seen so many times during previous labor impasses across American sports? 

Saying players should be grateful to be paid millions for playing a kid's game is, at its worst, an unsophisticated position, for professional sports is not a kid's game. Kid's games don't charge $75 to park, or $1,200 per ticket to attend the championship game. Kid's games don't generate $9 billion in revenue.

It is this expectation of unsophistication that at least in part emboldens owners to force labor unrest onto the public, for they believe the fans' wrath will always be levied worse against the players. And they have often been correct in this assumption.

The truth is far more complicated and fans have an opportunity to use their power both by learning complicated financial issues and changing how they view the relationship between the player and the owners. Allowances are made for ownership because they wear the suits. They've earned their money in ways the public tends to respect -- in business, through family -- instead of by combining wonderful genes with admirable dedication.

The fan has the power to be a voice in this negotiation, but it is a voice that will only be heard if fans redirect their fervor and spending, because the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else.

That would get everyone's attention. Football doesn't need the NFL to exist, nor do football fans. It just seems that way. There is college football.

There is high school football. There is touch football. There are basketball and baseball. There is also, through strife, the opportunity for new ideas-- perhaps a new league, with new partnerships and new leadership with new history without any of the old baggage -- that could spur these two sides that seem to believe in their own inherent invincibility to settle differences.

The real shame would be if fans just wait for the storm to pass and continue with business as usual without reminding both sides that the business of caring is what makes any of this important. The fans who are more watchers than doers can break out the old DVD of Jackie Smith dropping a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII, or of John Taylor scoring one against the Bengals.

The imagination is where the game really lives, especially because it is only March, and not September.

But should the leaves begin to change and labor is still an issue, the fans will have more power than ever: The power to turn the channel to something else.

Fans need to become more of a "player" in sports that are played for their benefit. Does anyone believe that sports would be played or profitable without the fan? Owners and players have lawyers, lobbyists, publicists, public relations experts, etc. What does the sports fan have? Well, up until recently they had no one on their side other than some outspoken sports media from time to time.

Sports fans now have a new not for profit advocacy group to fight in their behalf. Sportsfans.org is a bipartisan 501(c) 4 corporation dedicated to fighting for sports fans to give them a voice in the boardroom, in the halls of government, in the media and in sports arenas and stadiums.

It is about time for fans to be respected, feared and revered by owners, players, media and government officials. Fans have been the missing link in sports business decision-making. They should have a seat at the table and their opinions and input should be integral to decisions that are made that affect the sports they enjoy and support financially and spiritually.

Fans are not third party beneficiaries of sports they are the prime beneficiaries of sports and as such must be treated with the respect that is due them.

It is incumbent upon fans to be as organized and involved as the owners, leagues and players are.
Fans must act like equals before they will be treated as such.

Bradley A. Blakeman served as deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001-04. He is currently a professor of Politics and Public Policy at Georgetown University and a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion. Heis a pro-bono member of the Board of Directors of Sportsfans.org.