Less than a year ago, Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Osi Umenyiora and seven other players filed an antitrust suit against the NFL, a key moment in a convoluted and contentious labor dispute between the union and league that threatened to cut short — or even wipe out — the 2011 season.
On Sunday, Brady and Mankins of the New England Patriots and Umenyiora of the New York Giants will play in a Super Bowl that might very well draw more viewers than any TV show in history.
What lockout? What recession?
Nothing, it seems, can get in the way of the NFL, whose ratings and revenues climb and climb, no matter what. Indeed, some say both those issues managed to push even more attention and money the league's way.
Put simply, the NFL has the Midas Touch.
"The uncertainty of the lockout — 'Will it be settled? When will the deal come? Will it happen?' — created a sense of anticipation for the new season. It fed into the public's awareness of the NFL. Even the concussion stories helped, because the public has become aware of the issue and is watching games to see how the rules are enforced, to see how the game changes," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now runs a media consulting firm.
"They talk about it Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and they watch it on Sunday," Pilson said. "The more separate issues related to the NFL that become part of the public discourse feed into the audiences."
NFL games accounted for 23 of the 25 most-watched telecasts last fall, and a total of 37 games drew at least 20 million viewers each.
That, Pilson says, is at least in part a result of the country's financial state. After all, what's cheaper than plopping down on the couch to watch a game?
"Sports is, to a certain extent, recession-proof. You can see a sports event 10 different ways: on television, on your laptop, on your iPad, on your mobile phone, in bars and restaurants, in airports. There's no other entertainment property that is so ubiquitous," Pilson said. "When the economy went south, guess what? Americans stayed home, made a single investment in hi-definition television and watched sports. And what they watch more than anything is the NFL."
The last two Super Bowls were the two most-viewed programs in U.S. television history.
NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus is eager to see how many people tune in for his network's broadcast of Sunday's championship game between the Patriots and Giants. It's a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl, when Eli Manning led New York to an upset that ruined New England's bid for a perfect season.
"We're optimistic this has a chance to be the largest TV audience ever," Lazarus said. "This is a great rivalry game, with two of the most prolific franchises. They come with big markets. And they're both Eastern markets."
Lazarus noted that a Super Bowl provides "a great platform for immediate revenue" — to the tune of an average price of $3.5 million per 30-second commercial — and for "showcasing the network."
The NFL knows that, of course, and pulls in big bucks from broadcasters, on top of the money collected from deals with partners such as Nike and Pepsi, along with ticket sales, merchandise and local sponsorships.
NBC, CBS and Fox recently renewed their NFL contracts through the 2022 season, with annual bumps in rights fees that will bring the total revenue generated by those deals from nearly $2 billion per year to more than $3 billion. In September, ESPN kept "Monday Night Football" through the 2021 season, increasing its annual payments from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion.
"In a society where we are busier and busier every day and every year, having appointment television, with everyone knowing what time they get to see the product, is something the NFL has done and nobody else has. Other sports still ... are on at different times," said David Schwab, who specializes in matching brands with celebrities as managing director at Octagon First Call.
"From September to January, every Sunday, that's when football comes. That's a huge advantage," Schwab said. "Every Sunday at 1 o'clock, 4 o'clock and 8 o'clock have become what NBC Thursday nights used to be: 'Must See TV.'"
There's really no competition at all from other leagues.
The most recent edition of The Harris Poll, released last week, asked about 2,200 adults who follow at least one sport what their favorite is, and 36 percent chose professional football. Next up were baseball and college football — at 13 percent apiece.
That gap represents quite a jump from only a year earlier, when pro football topped baseball 31-17. So much for the notion that the "millionaires vs. billionaires" showdown over more than $9 billion in annual revenues would turn off fans.
"It's absolutely No. 1 in sports," Schwab said. "First of all, they put on the best quality product in live entertainment in this country. And the fan base is incredibly large and passionate. With passion comes support and tickets and merchandise and concessions. And that gets the eyeballs of brands and advertisers. So it's a cycle."
Certainly doesn't hurt to have the sort of stability in leadership the NFL has enjoyed.
The league announced last week that owners voted to extend Commissioner Roger Goodell's contract to March 2019. As it is, the NFL's had only two other commissioners since 1960.
"The other thing they've done quite brilliantly is they've made it a 12-month business. The NFL is in the public consciousness 12 months of the year, whether you're going through the season, then off into draft preparation, the combine, the draft, (free agency in) the summer," NBC's Lazarus said. "There really is no offseason, for the how fan looks at it."
Pilson offered another reason for the NFL's always-rising fortunes: gambling, including fantasy football.
"They feed the meter," he said. "They create interest in not just the outcome, but also the process. Gambling isn't just who wins and loses; it's the over-under, the third-quarter score."
Giants owner John Mara, meanwhile, offered a simple, on-the-field explanation for the sport's success.
"Look at how compelling the games are, week in and week out," Mara said. "That's why we're where we are today."
So soon after a potentially disastrous work stoppage, its first since 1987, the NFL is back in business and bigger than ever.
There's the new collective bargaining agreement that was signed in August, assuring labor peace for a decade.
Brady et al vs. National Football League et al is a distant memory. All anyone cares about at the moment is Brady et al vs. Manning et al.
"If we missed any games, it could have taken years, maybe a decade, to get the fans' respect back. People are hurting today," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "They want good stories."
Leave it to the NFL to deliver.
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich