- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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Let's get something out of the way first: We're not missing anything yet. The NFL and NBA lockouts don't mean anything until we reach the point where games are not played. In many ways, the NFL lockout has been a blessing. The idea of the owners locking the doors to extract a few more nickels from the rank-and-file is obnoxious. Their poor-mouthing is unbefitting plutocrats of such stature. Still, anything that spares us endless and pointless reports from training camps and OTAs is a good thing.
To this point, much of the attention given the lockouts has been directed at what fans will do if there are no games. These concerns have been ancillary and often frivolous, such as the potential withdrawal suffered by fantasy leaguers. (Now there's a worry for the ages.)
But what if fans had a say in what the leagues look like when they come back? It'll never happen, because fans are the great white noise in American sports: always there, always taken for granted. Ralph Nader's latest gallop toward the gates of publicity is a fan-advocacy group. He's focusing more on increasing civility among fans in the post-Bryan Stow environment, and it seems like the type of thing destined to become a well-meaning failure.
This could be the right time for league owners and commissioners to listen to a fan-advocacy group devoted to improving the fan experience. (The Sports Fan Coalition is one; it has already informed Roger Goodell that unilaterally withholding games from publicly funded stadiums is a sign that he "doesn't get it.") The idea of a fan lockout or strike is ridiculous and the owners know it. Do you think the NFL owners are giving any thought to the fans as they negotiate their latest extortions? Of course not. The only teams concerned with fans are the ones that want money and/or land for a new stadium and have to rely on voters to get it. The others couldn't care less -- they know the fans are coming back, and they're right.
But in the unlikely event someone is soliciting suggestions from the paying public, here are three:
Drop ticket prices: Sounds insane, right? If fans believe teams are losing money now -- and don't believe that, by the way -- how could it help to lower prices? But if owners are going to complain about the arena or stadium being half-empty, then make it easier for regular people to show up. And if you're going to stick with variable pricing, make it fair. You charge extra for the Lakers and Heat? Fine, then charge much, much less for the Kings and Cavs. And that goes for the Kings and Cavs, too -- you guys should charge less for all your games.
This could result in something nearly unheard-of in the NFL and NBA: more kids in the seats. If families could afford just one game a year, it would make the fan experience infinitely better. It would also result in an increase in merchandise sales, since the kid who buys a T-shirt at a game is far cooler than the kid who buys one online. The kid at the game has a story, and sports teams need to remember they're in the story business.
Besides, the corporate networker in the luxury suite is unlikely to rep your $20 T-shirt, but the 12-year-old will wear it to school or practice. That's worth more.
(It might also serve Nader's purpose, too, since even the most disgusting fans sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- think twice about being disgusting if there's a kid sitting nearby.)
In the NFL, attendance fell last year for the third straight year, to the lowest point since 1998. The average ticket price rose 3 percent to roughly $75. Hi-def TVs, the Red Zone Channel, DVRs -- they all work against the task of getting people in the seats. Plus, the unemployment rate is more than 9 percent and cheap entertainment is king. Even if a large percentage of the ticket sales are corporate, it's not hard to see the trend being unsustainable.
And if you find yourself needing to pare costs to make up for the decrease in ticket prices, we've got just the place to start:
No more in-game entertainment: See how easy this is. I don't know what NBA owners are spending on this added benefit to the fan experience, but it's money that could be saved or spent somewhere else.
If you want cheerleaders, fine, but everything else goes. That means no more trampoline acts, no more unicyclists and no more Frisbee-catching dogs. Just get rid of all of them.
I know what you're thinking: For the prices we charge, we have to give people something more than a game. We have to give them a bunch of clean-shaven, clap-happy glee club members who pine for the days of Up with People and spend every spare timeout tossing around cheap T-shirts and convincing people to clap for clumsy fans throwing beanbags for phone accessories.
If you get rid of all that stupidity, you might not get one letter of complaint. Timeouts will no longer be an assault on the senses. Fans might be able to discuss the game without screaming over the top of a guy with a microphone skipping toward midcourt yelling at everyone to put their hands together for Bimbo the Flying Poodle.
And since that one is specific to the NBA, here's one for the NFL:
Drop your stupid blackout rule: It's a global world; stop thinking small.
Let's take the Oakland Raiders as a perfect example. They don't sell out home games, which means those games are not on local television. How does this help the team?
The idea that depriving a local market of the local product in order to drive up demand for that product is a laughable concept from a business standpoint. And keeping fans in a team's market from watching those games seems dismissive at best, abusive at worst.
The increase in fantasy leagues and the DirectTV package -- and by the way, open that package to every service provider while you're at it -- have diluted local fan support. A football fan can live in Oakland and root for the Vikings. He can watch them every Sunday and even listen to the local radio broadcast. He doesn't need the Raiders.
So why make it easier for that guy -- or his kid -- to ignore the local team? What sense does that make?
Give him the games. And lower the prices. Maybe you'll even make a buck or two in the process.
But as for now, back to your meetings. We're all waiting for you to welcome us back. You know where to find us.
This could be the right time for league owners and commissioners to listen to a fan-advocacy group devoted to improving the fan experience.