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NFL Draft Boycott: If it Really Happened

If the draft boycott actually happens, get ready to see Goodell up there by himself a lot this year (photo from Flickr, licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Put yourself in the shoes of projected first-round picks Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and Da’Quan Bowers.

Imagine the excitement. You’re going to be a first-round draft pick. You’re going to walk out of the dining hall and into a 40/40 club, from an on-campus house you previously rented to a penthouse you now own, from your mother’s Chevy Cavalier to your personal shiny black Range Rover. You’re going to have a locker next to Chad OchoCinco, Larry Fitzgerald or DeAngelo Williams. You’re going to be an NFL player.

So you start working out for the combine, spending money on personal trainers, agents and publicists. You occasionally turn on ESPN and, between highlights of the Miami Heat crying, Blake Griffin dunking and Brett Favre sexting, you hear rumblings of an NFL “lockout.” You ignore it; it won’t happen. So you keep working out, dreaming big, spending money you don’t have.

And then it happens.

The draft is still set, so you can still workout. But what’s the point? You’ll get drafted by the Carolina Panthers and get your name added to the list of history’s first-overall draft picks, which includes legends like Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Michael Vick, but also includes punchlines like Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell.

Then they have to pay you. They have to pay you for a season in which you will not play. A season in which the NFL Players Association and owners will bicker about revenues, season length, retirement funds and concussions. A season in which everyone knows you won’t play. You’re value is immediately depreciated, especially with a fresh young batch of superstars who just made their names in the ongoing college season (why wasn’t I one year younger?) and stole the spotlight you occupied just a year before.

All these things run through your head and, one day out of the blue, Drew Brees walks up to you and asks you not to show up to the draft. You have a choice – you can do what you’ve dreamt since you were a sophomore in high school and everyone said you’d one day walk across the stage on draft day, or you can hold out, fit in with the NFL players and, hopefully, make a statement big enough to convince the owners to comply with the Players Association or suffer even larger financial losses this fall.

The Fallout

No one really expects an NFL draft boycott, but, then again, no one really expected an NFL lockout when it was first mentioned.

So while, at press time, no official call for an NFL draft boycott has been made, the rumors have been ignited and the speculation is ablaze. Even ESPN has discussed it on SportsCenter, which is more of a statement than the vague comment NFL players’ spokesman George Atallah released.

“We’re not asking guys to boycott anything,” the players’ spokesman George Atallah said. “It just will be different. I can’t say anything more than that. They may be at a different venue. It will still be the NFL draft. It just may be different.”

What could be different is Roger Goodell speaking to an empty room (because no one will buy tickets to watch a draft in which no first-rounders are there to take pictures), and then promptly resetting the clock for the next boring announcement that a four-win team selected a guy who won’t play this season.

What could be different is that, for once, the players assume the power. By recruiting prospective players to join their side, the NFL players take the glitter off of the league’s off-season gold. During the past few decades, the draft transformed from something you read about in the newspaper the day after to a primetime, advertisement-ridden spectacle.

The NBA draft is the only other in sports that attracts significant attention, but it pales in comparison to that of the NFL. Last year, the NBA draft saw a six percent jump in viewers from the year before, reaching nearly 2.8 million. In 2010, NFL draft viewership grew 16 percent to break the all-time record, set in 2009, with 45.4 million viewers.

The record-setting spike in ratings came during the first year in which the NFL embraced the anomaly that is the NFL draft. Rather than televise the event on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, when its target markets are less likely to turn on the TV, the NFL moved it to primetime on Thursday night, thus maximizing the market. And as viewership rises, so do advertising revenues.

However, for the same reason ticket sales will diminish, removing the stars of this show is likely to damage both viewership and advertising revenues. Without the players in attendance, no one will choose to watch an overpaid white guy speak at a podium. That’s what CSPAN is for. Naturally, advertising revenues will plummet because, with rumors of a player-free draft likely to hurt ratings, those looking to advertise (Gatorade, Under Armor, Verizon Wireless) will demand a lower price for the value. And the NFL will be forced to oblige.

Of course, the NFL Players Association knows all this, which is why they started the rumor in the first place. But few have considered the collateral damage. If the NFL owners are willing to sacrifice the billions of dollars of potential revenues of an entire season, they are far less likely to care about the NFL draft. Why not sacrifice a two-day event that attracted 45.4 million viewers last year when they have shown they’re willing to sacrifice a one-day event that drew 111 million viewers just a month ago? The owners just may become even more stubborn, and entirely ignore any future attempt to reconcile.

So, after a “different” draft day, as Atallah put it, these first-round draft prospects would walk away maybe even more uncertain than before they decided to boycott. The activist demonstration, which was supposed to both gain the acceptance of current NFL players and spark discussions that get their rookie year underway on time, didn’t work, and they’re in the same position they were in when the lockout kicked in.

But at least they’ll learn a lesson:  draft or not, when neither team shows up to play, no one can win and no one gets paid.

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