The National Football League is seeing the early signs of cracks in fan loyalty.
Ten weeks into the owners' lockout of the players, commissioner Roger Goodell noted Wednesday the negative effect the labor dispute is having on pro football.
"Clearly it has had an impact on the fans," Goodell said as the owners completed their spring meetings. "We see it in various metrics. There's been a noticeable change, TV ratings were down on the draft roughly 4 million people. NFL.com traffic [is down], we see that."
Ticket sales also are down.
"Fans want certainty," Goodell added. "We can't underestimate that the fans are going through challenges just in the general economy."
That certainty isn't likely to come soon. Both sides have a date in 8th U.S. District Court on June 3 for hearings on the league's appeal to uphold the lockout. A decision probably won't come for several weeks, and while another set of mediation sessions is scheduled to start June 7, not much is expected from those discussions while the appeal is being considered.
The owners' meetings included lengthy talks about the labour dispute, but no deadlines have been set — yet — for the opening of training camps, which usually happens in late July. That drop-dead date "obviously is coming," Goodell said, barring a collective bargaining agreement.
"We've made it clear that [revenue loss] is current and will continue to accelerate and impact on the ability of ownership to make an offer [the players] find attractive," he said.
Plans for opening weekend
Owners were presented the full range of plans for opening weekend, from the first game on Thursday night at Lambeau Field to commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks on the first full Sunday of games. Those dates are not in jeopardy yet, but the longer the impasse, the more in danger they would become, particularly with the league's marketing partners, sponsors and advertisers who must commit dollars to those events well in advance.
"We're not at an Armageddon date," Eric Grubman, executive vice president of business operations for the NFL, told The Associated Press. "We're not staring that in the face this week."
Several teams already have begun to consider adjusting where they hold training camp. Fifteen teams trained last summer at complexes other than their in-season facilities, and some have deadlines as early as July 1 to decide whether to return to those locales or hold a truncated training camp at home.
"If it dragged on or there was a shorter camp, something like that might not be inconceivable," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. The Colts training camp is held about an hour from Indianapolis at Anderson University.
One day after cancelling the rookie symposium scheduled for June 26 in Canton, Ohio — the first NFL event victimized by the lockout — Goodell reiterated the league's intent to play a full schedule this season. He recognized the need not only for some sort of training camps but also for a free agency signing period once a new CBA is reached.
"The uncertainty is something we have to consider in getting players ready to play, and we have talked about different concepts," he said.
A portion of these meetings was spent on adopting rules amendments for player safety. The league also announced a policy of "club accountability" for teams whose players repeatedly are fined for flagrant hits.
Punishments for the teams will be financial, but also could include further discipline by Goodell, including stripping of draft picks, for repeat offenders — something Goodell said he has "not contemplated yet."
That announcement brought a strong reaction from two Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers: LaMarr Woodley and the oft-fined James Harrison.
"Thoughts on "the steelers rule"??? lol im sorry that im not sorry we hit 2 hard," Woodley tweeted.
Harrison's tweet was: "I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots."
Local reporters, concerned about next February's Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium, asked several owners and Goodell whether the title game is in danger.
"You're going to have the Super Bowl here, I'm confident of that," Giants owner John Mara said.
"We're approaching 2011," Goodell added, "as we would any other season."