What is the significance of this date?
That’s when training camps for the 2011-12 NFL season would open. For the first time since 1987 however, the National Football League may experience a work stoppage due to the expiration of their Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association. There is always the chance that the sides may reach an agreement before training camps open, but at this point there are a lot of differences to be worked out, and there is a very real possibility of the owners locking out camps.
Could there be a better time for the soccer establishment to organize and activate? To put forth the resources to exploit this small crack in the bulletproof glass known as the American sports scene? To finally push MLS to a new level in the American sports psyche?
Work stoppages in America can be devastating for a sport. Major League Baseball closed up shop in 1994 for nearly 3/4 of the season. In 2004, the National Hockey League locked out for an entire year. In each case, the sports suffered dearly. It took MLB the better part of ten years to regain the fan base they lost, especially outside of the metropolitan areas. The NHL lost their contract with ESPN after their lockout, and the national popularity is still down despite attempts to popularize the game through offensive-minded changes such as modified offsides and icing rules, as well as games in outdoor stadiums.
From a popularity standpoint, the NFL endured their last stoppage pretty well in 1987. Back then, the arenas of marketing and media seemed much less cutthroat. Not to mention that American soccer was in its deepest valley. In the case of the MLB strike, MLS was in its infancy and suffering from lack of quality. We hosted the World Cup that season, but didn’t have the organizational infrastructure or talent base to threaten baseball.
At this point in the development of soccer in the US, the politically provocative words of Rahm Emanuel come to mind. This is a serious NFL crisis that MLS should not let go to waste. Already we have reports that Manchester United and Arsenal are considering summer tours of the United States. The Red Devils are owned by the Glazer Family, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. It will be a grand time for them to send their product to the US, knowing full well the potential fight that they have on their hands with the NFLPA.
What say you? Can MLS and the other divisions get a foot in the door? Are NFL fans too difficult to win over? What strategy does MLS need to take going forward, with or without an NFL lockout to exploit? What would success look like, in terms of increased popularity? And finally, are there things we can do as fans to help in the cause?