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Networks hope NFL settles labor dispute

Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw and former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson were chatting happily about the Super Bowl during a Fox Sports media conference call last week — and then someone mentioned the “L” word.

What if, one reporter asked, the ongoing labor dispute between players and owners were to result in a lockout, thereby keeping players off the field next season?

Fox Sports Media Group President David Hill paused. “I hope and pray fervently that there isn’t a stoppage,” he said. “The sport has reached heights that even [former NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle never dreamed of, and we want to keep it that way.... We know what happens to sports after a strike or a lockout; people turn away and it takes a while for them to come back. I fervently hope … games go on as scheduled next September.”

But even as anticipation over Sunday’s showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers builds, the likelihood of a lockout — and its devastating effects on networks broadcasting the NFL — is provoking widespread nervousness across the league. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, and the absence of a new deal casts a cloud over the Super Bowl, particularly as ratings for NFL games have reached unprecedented heights this season.

If a lockout occurs next season, few would suffer as much as the major television networks that have come to rely on NFL games as a powerful tool to cross-promote their programming and as a bountiful source of revenue. Fox and CBS would have huge holes to fill in their schedules, and for struggling NBC, which has only one show — “Sunday Night Football” — that consistently lands in the top 20, a lockout could be especially damaging.

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The effect might be slightly less harmful to ESPN, which broadcasts “Monday Night Football” and presumably would have little difficulty finding other sports programming — though it would have nothing that could command the same attention as pro football.

Media analyst Brad Adgate, a vice president at New York-based Horizon Media, pointed out that NBC’s Sunday night football games and ESPN’s Monday Night Football are the most popular sports shows on television with the coveted 18- to 49-year-old audience. He also said the vacancies that CBS and Fox would experience on Sunday afternoons would be difficult to replace: “There’s no show on a Sunday afternoon that’s going to draw 18 [million] to 20 million viewers.”

Network executives declined to be interviewed on the record about the labor dispute, and for now are quietly downplaying the worst-case scenario by staying focused on the Super Bowl, which last year was the most-watched program in history, scoring 106.5 million viewers.

The scenario recalls a similar situation in 1987 when NFL players went on strike, prompting owners to bring in replacement players, who were largely ignored by fans. After three weeks, the striking players returned.

“We are working very hard to secure an agreement, and we want to do that sooner rather than later,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL Network, which is sponsored by the league and also broadcasts league games. “Football affects a wide variety of industries, particularly in the fourth quarter of the year. The deadline is upon us, and there needs to be a sense of urgency.”

Football games now are not only drawing record viewership, averaging more than 25 million viewers, but have also fueled fresh interest in fantasy football leagues, hikes in merchandising sales and a host of spinoff television shows featuring league stars like Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.

“What both sides need to recognize here is football is too big, and they can’t let it fail,” said Robert Horowitz, president of Juma Entertainment, which produces the annual “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials” prime-time special that airs Friday. “What’s at stake isn’t just what happens on a Sunday, it’s about what this means to the entire broadcast industry. If it happens, it would be apocalyptic, a disaster.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com


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