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The NFL Lockout: Millionaire Versus Billionaire

Posted At: September 2, 2011 12:21 PM
by Jaclyn McNeil

by Jaclyn McNeil

The NFL lockout ended on the 136th day of the longest labor dispute in NFL history. The road to this point in the NFL lockout had been a long and difficult one.

In 2008, NFL owners unanimously voted not to continue with the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the National Football League Association (NFLPA) after the 2010 season. The labor agreement gave players 57 percent of the NFL’s $9 billion in revenue and the owners took $1 billion. The owners wanted to increase their $1 billion to $2.4 billion, which would cut the players’ share of the revenue by 18 percent.

The collective bargaining agreement of the NFL players’ union expired in March and since no new contract had been put in place, the NFL lockout began, along with prolonged negotiations for a new contract.

Ten players, including Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in Minnesota’s Eighth Circuit Court. The players asked for an injunction that would keep the NFL operating and keep the players from a lockout when the current CBA expired.

Mike Florio, writer for NBC sports, said big players associated with the antitrust lawsuit could suffer from bad public perception.

“If, in the end, the case produces significant negative changes to the game of pro football like the death of the draft, everyone associated with it will suffer a PR hit, especially the ones who are perceived as the leaders of the charge,” said Florio.

The main arguments between the owners and the players include new revenue sharing rules, post-career health benefits for players, the rookie pay scale and switching from a 16 to 18 game season.

An NFL lockout affects more than just the owners and players. Hotels, restaurants and shops would lose out greatly when teams and tourists cease to travel to their cities; assistant coaches and lower personnel would lose their jobs; ticket and concession jobs would cease to exist; and sponsorship and broadcast jobs would be cut as well.

After months of closed-door negotiations and public debate, the NFL owners and players have finally entered into an agreement that ended the lockout and will rule the NFL’s labor relations for the next 10 years.

So after all is said and done, what PR lessons can be learned from the NFL lockout?

Always keep your target audience in mind.

Glenn Selig, founder of The Publicity Agency and a crisis management PR expert, said that to win in the court of public opinion you have to win over the public.

“The public defined the fight as millionaire versus billionaire. Neither side did enough to help the fans understand the real issues,” said Selig.

In order to win over the public, you must be aware of your audience. The NFL fan is an average American who cannot imagine arguing over how to divide up $9 billion. The last thing the players or owners should do is play the “woe is me” card, especially at this time of economic struggles.

Tom Zelig, writer for SB Nation and the Sactown Royalty, believes players won over the public by being more relatable than the owners.

“The players union used social media — Twitter and even viral video in a few places, like Funny Or Die — to great effect throughout the lockout, and that could be a game-changer for high-profile labor struggles in the future,” said Zelig.

Many NFL players used social media to start up conversation about the lockout and to allow the public to join in on the discussion. Some used their personal Twitter accounts to update fans on the labor negotiations, using the #LETUSPLAY Twitter hashtag.

In the court of public opinion, it is more likely that the players win over the owners. They appeared more relatable by communicating with the public through social media.

Concise and immediate crisis communication is key.

It was important that the players kept the public informed on their reasoning for the lockout. The players, after all, are the ones who would suffer significantly from fan loss. A bad public perception of certain players could result in loss of sponsorships and endorsements. The owners know that it doesn’t really matter what the public thinks of them but the players can lose greatly from bad public perception.

“Collective bargaining is about negotiating as a collective and that means players, retired ones and current big names alike, should be speaking with one voice,” said Selig. “The player’s reps should stress to their clients to reflect about what is so important about fighting the owners.”

Selig believes that had a big name, current NFL player advocated on behalf of retired ones and big name, retired players had advocated for current players, they would have had a better chance to win over public opinion, which could have provided them with a better bargaining position.

The NFL should have prepared the public with the imminent lockout that was looming before it took place. In the case that the lockout resulted in no season or a retracted one, better communication with the public would have helped to shine some light on why it happened.

“Now that football is back it’s all’s well that ended well, but had it not ended well it would be a different story,” said Selig.

CJ Powell, a PR adviser for Cohn Marketing, said there is nothing more important than clear and concise messaging during a company crisis.

“As a PR practitioner, it’s your job during a crisis to get the essential pieces of information to the affected audiences in a timely manner,” said Powell.

Timing is everything.

As with any crisis situation, a resolution must be made in a timely manner. The lockout lasted for months, but the beginning, middle and end all occurred during the offseason; therefore, the affected audience was never really that affected by the dispute: the season will move forward and no one gets hurt.

“There would have been a greater backlash had this dispute continued into the fall and winter,” said Powell. “Still, based on public opinion on the situation to date, it’s difficult to tell whether that backlash would have been directed at the players or the owners.”

When dealing with a crisis such as the NFL lockout, it’s necessary that PR practitioners get out clear and concise messages to the public. It is up to the company or organization to then come to an agreement in a timely fashion to deflect even more public backlash.

Photo by Jayel Aheram






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