NFL owners and players are still trying to reach an agreement to end a lockout that began in March and threatens to push preseason off schedule; the standoff may end as soon as next week, just in time to avoid disrupting anyone’s fantasy football draft.
But neither side is sitting back and waiting for negotiations to end. The league and the players both enlisted lobbyists, created rapid-response operations, and used social media to gin up public support. The Players Association has courted Hollywood and brandished dubious studies about the economic effects of a lockout. The NFL has aggressively fact-checked its critics and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has reached out to fans with a series of town hall-style conference calls. In short, they’ve deployed tactics from D.C. that are more familiar to campaigns than the grinding labor talks of professional sports teams. An NFL deal may get done in New York, but the P.R. fight is all Washington.
Negotiations and court battles settled the NFL labor strifes of 1982 and 1987. But that hasn’t stopped the league and the Players Association from trying to win the hearts and minds of the fans this time. The league signed up Elmendorf Ryan, a Democratic-run lobbying firm founded by former veteran staffers of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, as well as the Glover Park Group, founded by Clinton White House aides. The two firms represent some of the biggest corporate powerhouses in the country: UnitedHealth Group, Verizon, The Washington Post, and the Recording Industry Association of America.
The players, meanwhile, hired GOP-leaning lobby shop Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, which counts Apple, Facebook, and the hedge-fund industry’s trade group as its clients. The bipartisan public relations firm Singer Bonjean Strategies—run by Phil Singer, a veteran of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, and Ron Bonjean, a former top GOP aide on Capitol Hill—is working for them, too.
All that firepower, and all the billable hours involved, underscores football’s position as a big business that also just happens to entertain people every Sunday afternoon during the fall and winter. The league generated about $9.3 billion last year; no wonder the same K Street types who work for tech giants are involved now.
So far, you have to give an edge in this fight to the association. (After all, no one is wearing a Redskins jersey with Dan Snyder’s name on the back.) Still, “the public finds it hard to pick a side where you have a fight between billionaire owners and multi-millionaire players,” says Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor who focuses on sports business. “The fan base just wants both sides to come together and get a deal done.” In the meantime, the players and the owners are trying to win sympathy for their case, using strategies familiar to anyone who’s watched Beltway public affairs fights.
The Players Association’s NFLLockout.com plays to the crowd like a popular high-school quarterback. The site has more than 50,000 Facebook fans and nearly 8,000 Twitter followers, and it lets you fill out an online petition in support of the players. George Atallah, a P.R. guy whose last job was in Qorvis Communications’ D.C. office flacking for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, runs the association’s online outreach. He was the first hire when DeMaurice Smith took over as executive director of the Players Association in May 2009. Smith, a former lobbyist at Patton Boggs and member of President Barack Obama’s transition team, won his post in part by promising to boost the association’s advocacy efforts.
Unlike the owners, the players have access to star power that can woo fans. Videos on NFLLockout.com show players working out on their own because they can’t access their teams’ world-class facilities. But the online advocacy doesn’t end at the association’s website. Twenty NFL players partnered with the humor site Funny or Die to create “Field of Dreams 2: The NFL Lockout.” The video featured Taylor Lautner from the Twilight movies as a farmer who builds a football gridiron in an Iowa cornfield. Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Shawne Merriman of the Buffalo Bills are among players with speaking roles. Ray Liotta, who starred in Field of Dreams, plays NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell; Kevin Costner makes a cameo at the end of the video. Funny or Die says the video, which debuted on ESPN’s SportsCenter and was posted on numerous sports blogs, was its biggest production yet. The video was a touchdown for the players. “The players have done a good job early on portraying themselves as victims in the lockout, as guys who just want to play football,” says John Maroon, president of Columbia, Md.-based Maroon PR, which specializes in sports business, and who briefly served as vice president of communications for the Redskins in 1999.
The players want you to know the lockout isn’t only about their members, who make a median salary of $770,000, but the other poor folks who rely on football for their livelihoods. The labor dispute could devastate the economies of entire cities, according to a study commissioned by the association. The study, done by D.C.-based Edgewood Economics, found a season-long lockout would cause up to $160 million in economic damages for each NFL city. If that wasn’t enough evidence to win over the public, the association unveiled league documents it obtained from lawsuits, in a fashion befitting WikiLeaks. In a series of blog posts labeled “The Conspiracy File,” documents show that the league sought to make long-term business decisions that would “maximize revenue.” (Shocker.)
The league’s NFLLabor.com counterpunches with the earnestness of a student council president. The site details inaccuracies in Smith’s statements to the media, and even truth squads a talk he gave to MBA students at the University of Virginia in April. The website’s blog, like a stodgy campaign war room, attempts to poke holes in the association’s talking points. It criticized one of Atallah’s comments with a post headlined “There he goes again”—Ronald Reagan’s catch phrase from the 1980 presidential debate. (Oh, burn!) You can also find transcripts of the conference calls Goodell has done with fans from a half of dozen NFL teams. One fact sheet offers a critique from the Players Association’s economic impact study, which quotes from economists rightly pointing out that sports fans would simply spend their money elsewhere in the absence of a football season.
Owners and players have more than 9 billion reasons to strike a deal. Even a small hiccup in operations caused by a lockout will mean a smaller paycheck for everyone this season. Chances are the negotiations will lead to a resolution; the K Street gang is only there as a defensive measure if negotiations fail. “I think the owners and the players would prefer lawmakers stay out of the negotiations except to applaud once a deal is reached,” says Harvard’s Greyser. The NFL has more than tripled the money it spends on lobbyists, from $380,000 in 2006 to $1.45 million last year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Under Smith’s tenure, the players association spent $780,000 with Smith’s former employer, Patton Boggs, over the past two years, up from $100,000 in 2008 and 2007 with another lobbying firm.
The public spats between the owners and players have died down, with negotiations now in a critical phase. The 24-hour news cycle, and fans’ appetite for minutiae, has spread the message from the online operations of both the league and players, Maroon says. He thinks the players have stayed on point, which is impressive considering the numbers of strong personalities in their camp, and the league has opened up more about its position than in past disputes. “What the NFL and players association have done during the lockout will likely serve as a model for other sports leagues,” Maroon says.
Whether other sports learn from football’s lesson may be evident sooner, rather than later; the NBA is heading into a labor dispute, too. Pro sports isn’t just a game, after all.
Illustrations by Brooke Hatfield