By Mark Ross
On Aug. 11, 1994, major league baseball players walked off the field and started what ended up being a seven-month work stoppage that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years. Games resumed the following April, but the fans didn't return. Attendance dropped 20 percent during the 1995 season and it took nearly a decade for average attendance to approach it's pre-strike level. Fast forward to the present and with a reported $7.1 billion in gross revenue in 2010, a 400% increase compared to 1995, it's fair to say that America's favorite pastime has since rebounded. However, the point is this: it took some time and there were certainly some "growing pains" along the way.
So let's contrast that to the NFL, or what is affectionately known as America's game. With estimated revenue of $9 billion in 2010, the NFL is clearly king among the four major sports when it comes to TV viewership, game attendance and corporate involvement. But the NFL is coming off of a work stoppage of its own that just ended in early August with the official ratification of a new CBA by both the owners and players. Only one preseason game was lost to the work stoppage, but there was plenty of frustration, disbelief and anger expressed by football fans across the country as the labor negotiations dragged on through the summer and were covered ad nauseam by every medium that exists. The question then becomes would a summer's worth of discontent translate to any sort of fan-led lockout once the games started?
The answer — not so much. Compared to Week 1 of last season, opening week attendance numbers were pretty much equal. Last year, more than 1.09 million fans attended games in the opening week. This past Thursday, Sunday and last night, about 1.08 million fans were in attendance in stadiums across the country, according to numbers found on ESPN.com. The total difference between the past two opening weeks is less than 11,000.
Eight teams — Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New York Jets, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington — hosted Week 1 games each of the past two seasons. Of those eight, only three of them (Jacksonville, Kansas City and Washington) drew fewer fans this season compared to last. Tampa Bay was the only team that didn't sell enough tickets to prevent a local TV blackout for its opening game, although it did draw more than 4,000 fans this season compared to last.
And speaking of TV, the NFL and ESPN announced a new agreement last week that keeps "Monday Night Football" on ESPN for the next decade and also will increase the number of NFL-related shows on the network. The agreement, which officially begins in 2014, has ESPN reportedly paying the NFL $1.9 billion per year, up from the current $1.1 billion. Further, NBC's opening "Sunday Night Football" broadcast of the Dallas Cowboys-New York Jets game two nights ago set a record as the series' highest-rated game ever and earned the best ratings for a Week 1 game broadcast on a Sunday or Monday night in 15 years.
Overall, the NFL is estimating that it will take in $9.5 billion in revenue during the regular season, including a 15 percent increase in sponsorship revenue. So it appears that fans, TV viewers and corporate America all have put the lockout behind them and returned to the game they love. In fact, according to this Associated Press article, the return of the NFL acts as its own stimulus program for the national economy in and of itself. Clearly, it is good to be the king.