BOSTON -- (TheStreet) -- The NFL lockout is over. So who cares?
Both the NFL's players and its owners are likely very happy to have the five- month mess behind them and their revenue streams intact. League partners including
are also sweating a little less now that their nine-figure marketing investments are out of danger, and
is very happy that its "You Won't Pay Until They Play" strategy for its $335-a-season NFL Sunday Ticket package never had to be deployed.
Nothing changes for the fans, and that's not necessarily a great thing.
The NFL's television ratings on Fox, NBC, ABC and ESPN rose 8% last year and 20% from 2009. That obscures the fact that 10% of its games were blacked out on television in local markets last year and that the league's 26 blackouts were its most since 30 games were blacked out in 2004.
Amid 9% to 10% unemployment, falling housing prices and all other manner of economic uncertainty likely not between the millionaires at the NFL negotiation table, average NFL attendance fell by 1% last season and left the league at around 95% capacity in 2010. That's more than 1,400 fewer fans per game since 2007 and down from 99.9% capacity that same year. Fans haven't stopped loving football; they just hate paying so much for it.
The average ticket price for a game has risen steadily from $59.05 in 2005 to $74.99 last year, according to Team Marketing Report. The price for taking a family of four out to a game and buying beer, soda, hot dog parking and a program rose from $329.91 in 2005 to $412.64 last season. For those crunching the numbers at home, that's about seven bucks more than the cost of calling up DirecTV and getting every game in the league on your HDTV, PC and mobile device, a player tracker for your fantasy football league, game replays on demand and a RedZone channel that not only shows only the scoring drives, but never blacks out.
The labor agreement did nothing to convince fans that the product in the stadium is any better than what they can see at home. Consequently, it's done little to address big problems in NFL markets like Tampa, where fans haven't seen a Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game on television legally since 2009 thanks to a season-long blackout. The Bucs were in contention until the end of the season, but it did little to move Bucs fans unwilling to come to the stadium even at a 3% average discount from 2009 or provoke much response from owner Malcolm Glazer, who was seemingly preoccupied with soccer and his globetrotting Manchester United squad.
The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, had seven of their home games blacked out for the second-straight year and needed a brief shot at passing the Kansas City Chiefs for first in the AFC West to keep it from becoming eight. The Cincinnati Bengals had a sold out house for much of quarterback Carson Palmer's tenure with the team, but started a four-home-game blackout streak of their own when it became clear that a terrible season signaled the end for the Bengals' nucleus of Palmer, wide receiver Chad Johnson/Ochocinco and coach Marvin Lewis.
Even teams that got their act together left fans with reason for doubt. The Buffalo Bills had their first home television blackouts since 2006, but avoided another when a local restaurant owner stepped up and bought out the home finale. The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, went from seven blackouts in 2009 to a full slate of sellouts last year and a season that fell just short of earning a playoff berth.
Yet the Bills were forced to play a "home" game in Toronto for a fourth consecutive year and were given no indication by ownership that their future in Buffalo was secure. The Jaguars received a big boost from fans, the team's marketing department and strong-willed supporters including former offensive lineman Tony Boselli, but were still whispered about in rumors about a possible move to Los Angeles.
San Diego, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Minnesota -- which just had the roof of the Vikings' home in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome collapse and had a state budget showdown scuttle talks for a new statdium -- have all been targeted by Los Angeles stadium developers and are all equally at risk of having their teams ripped from them. The end of the lockout for fans these towns means another season of the league looking at their easily portable small to mid-market teams with one eye and pretty drawings of stadiums in the City of Industry with the other.
The NFL's problem would be infinitely worse if teams in multisport towns like the Giants and the Jets had to spend all summer focusing on whether personal seat licenses would finally prevent sellouts in a major market. They're also fortunate that towns with terrible baseball teams like Kansas City and Seattle have made themselves busy with Major League Soccer and are driving those teams' average attendance dwarf that of the Royals and Mariners. The Seattle Sounders' draw is even stretching into Seahawks-only portions of CenturyLink field when it balloons to 42,000 for certain games.
That's nowhere close to the Seahawks' 67,000-a-game average, but the Sounders' more than 37,000 average draw exceeds the Seahawks' 100% capacity. It doesn't mean Seahawks fans are going to stop going to games anytime soon, especially when they celebrated their team's 7-9 season and unlikely playoff berth by making enough noise to register a seismic reading during a win over the New Orleans Saints. It does mean that casual interest may not be enough to carry the sport after the blackout and revenue streams like Electronic Arts
series, which has seen sales drop each year since 2005, can dry up quickly.
The NFL and its players can pat each other on the back all they want now that they're done squabbling, but all their talk amounts to nothing if fans are still feeling locked out.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.