In so many ways, these are the best of times for the National Football League. As TV reporter Bill Carter recently affirmed, its games are “by far the most popular form of programming on American television.” According to Nielsen data, the NFL accounted for eight of the ten top-rated telecasts between January and November 2010. It is a revenue monster, with a product seemingly designed to work well on the small screen. Moreover, its status as the “perfect TV sport” has been enhanced in an era of flat panels and high definition. For all the attention given to LeBron, Kobe, and A-Rod, the NFL’s fan base dwarfs those of the NBA and Major League Baseball. Indeed, if the competition between American sports leagues were a boxing match, pro football would be Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Mike Tyson all rolled into one.
On the field, some believe we are witnessing a Golden Age of Quarterbacks. The two premier signal-callers — Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts — have reached a level of superstardom that transcends football. Their decade-long QB rivalry ranks among the greatest ever, and the perennial success of their teams has boosted fan interest. Brady is currently enjoying one of the most impressive years in NFL history, with 36 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in 16 regular-season contests. Manning struggled through a difficult period in which he tossed eleven picks during three consecutive losses, but the four-time league MVP finished strong, leading the Colts to four straight victories that guaranteed them yet another AFC South division crown.
The playoffs commence on Saturday, with New Orleans visiting Seattle and Indianapolis hosting the New York Jets. This should be a triumphant moment for NFL officials — a moment for basking in the glow of their league’s massive popularity and enormous financial power. “At a time when little or nothing on television increases its audience,” writes Carter, “the NFL is still finding new viewers.” The 2010–11 campaign has featured several provocative subplots, such as the dramatic comeback of Michael Vick and the one-man circus of Brett Favre. The wild-card playoff round will include a heavily hyped rematch of last January’s AFC championship contest, which was won by the Colts, 30–17. Jets coach Rex Ryan has been fueling the hype with his characteristic swagger. The game is bound to prove a ratings bonanza.
No question, the NFL reigns as undisputed king of the modern U.S. sporting landscape. Its dominance is hardly a new phenomenon. As journalist Mark Yost points out in his 2006 book, Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps, pro football became “the most frequently watched sport in America” — eclipsing baseball — during the 1960s, thanks in large measure to the 1958 Colts–Giants NFL title contest (a.k.a., “the greatest game ever played”). Its ambitious revenue-sharing system — the brainchild of former league commissioner Pete Rozelle, who built upon the intellectual template established by NFL founding father Bert Bell — helped ensure a remarkable degree of economic parity among individual franchises, regardless of their home-market size. This parity was further bolstered in 1994, with the introduction of a rigid cap on player salaries.
Over the past two decades, the NFL is the only one of the Big Four American sports leagues that has avoided a labor shutdown. Major League Baseball lost the World Series in 1994, and the NHL lost nearly half a season shortly thereafter. The 1998–99 NBA campaign was severely truncated by a lockout, and the 2004–05 NHL season was canceled altogether. Pro football, by contrast, has operated without a work stoppage since 1987. Yost calls it “the most successful sports league on the planet.” That is no exaggeration.
Unfortunately, the best of times may soon give way to the worst of times if players and owners cannot hammer out a fresh collective-bargaining agreement (CBA). The present CBA expires in less than two months. It was signed in 2006, when the league stood on “the brink of organizational and economic collapse” (as Yost puts it). Today, the most contentious proposals include an 18-game schedule (up from 16) and a rookie wage scale, both of which the owners have advocated and the players have opposed. Led by its relatively new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, who assumed his job in 2009, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) is seeking owner concessions on health care, offseason practices, and revenue distribution, among other things.
“I personally am not as optimistic as some are that we are making much progress,” Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson declared on Tuesday. A day later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his displeasure at the sluggishness of negotiations. “I’m not satisfied with the current pace,” Goodell said. “There has not been enough progress in collective bargaining over the last three or four weeks that there should be. There hasn’t been a sense of urgency from the union side.”
In truth, charges of greed and imprudence can be leveled against both the players and owners. But the NFLPA is right to push for a heightened emphasis on player safety and medical coverage, especially given the recent spike in concussions and the publication of new scientific evidence linking head trauma with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The owners, meanwhile, are wholly justified in their efforts to curb excessive rookie salaries, with compensation tied more to on-field performance than to draft position. (Exhibit A: the $68 million JaMarcus Russell fiasco.)
Will the two sides ultimately strike an eleventh-hour deal, as they did five years ago? Hopefully, yes, but that will require both camps to demonstrate much more flexibility than they have heretofore shown. Losing an entire NFL season to a labor spat was once unthinkable. Now it is a very real possibility. So enjoy watching Brady, Manning, and all the rest these next few weeks. After Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, they may not be returning for quite some time.
— Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.