Sports Biz: Something new in football—humility

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano and the leaves of Aspen trees turning a brilliant gold on Independence Pass, football descended again to the planet Earth. And it was good.

It happened without announcement or ceremony or any particular blowing of any particular horn. It just happened. Suddenly one Friday afternoon, cued by some unseen force, high school kids smeared black polish under their eyes and stuffed their heads inside freshly polished helmets and ran onto fields where eager cheerleaders bounced up and down and referees blew whistles, and the smack of colliding shoulder pads could be heard up in the stands.

Colorful jerseys that had been stuffed inside dark closets and lockers for the better part of the year burst out in full display on Saturday afternoon at college stadiums. CSU’s Rams took the field in Boulder, signifying the start of big-time college football in Colorado, and promptly upset CU, and everybody talked about it the next day.

At local bars on Wednesday evenings, private rooms were set aside where participants in fantasy football leagues gathered to draft players named DeShaun and Cedric and Marion, scribbling notes and consulting lists and high-fiving partners because they were pretty sure this year nobody could touch their team. On the eve of a very uncertain Denver Broncos season, hopeful fans dug deep and found reason to believe that somehow things would come together. Some of them even bought jerseys labeled “Orton.”

In the worst recession the U.S. has seen in a long time, football’s return seemed to deliver an affirmation of sorts: that despite the tumult and pain of a deep, lingering economic slump, some things remained the way they always were, predictable and certain and solid. In the return of players to the field and coaches to the sidelines and highlights to the evening newscast, fans found reason to delight, to cheer, to hope – as they hoped every year at this time – that this season would be the season.

But has football really escaped the brutal correction the recession has forced on nearly every element of American life? Not so much. The pageantry and uplift of football’s re-emergence are very much evident, but behind the scenes, football, too, has been changed by the reeling economy.

The impact is hitting hardest where the stakes are highest. The multibillion dollar economic machine that is the National Football League has sputtered and clanked under the weight of the downturn. This season, a handful of teams are preparing to play home games in stadiums with enough empty seats to force local TV blackouts.

The NFL’s franchises in Jacksonville, Kansas City, Detroit, Miami, St. Louis and Oakland were all warning of possible blackouts as the season began. Last year, only nine NFL games were blacked out in home cities because teams failed to sell out games. But this year, cash-strapped fans, staring at a price of $72 for an average ticket and skeptical of their team’s outlook, have held back on buying season tickets, forcing many teams to work harder to sell out games.

In Oakland, the Raiders are now offering season ticket buyers points toward food purchases. In Chicago, the Bears changed a longstanding cash-only policy and now are accepting credit card payments. In Cincinnati, the Bengals created new packages that offer a choice of four games – instead of all 10.

In Denver, where season ticket holders perennially pack Invesco Field, there was never any question about selling out the season. But even the Broncos adjusted for the economy, extending payment terms for ticket-holders who struggled to find the cash.

“You have to understand the pain the consumer is going through outweighs whatever cash-flow issues you have from time to time,” Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ chief operating officer, told the industry newspaper Sports Business Journal.

Football is back, all right, but at the professional level, its return comes with something new: a hint of humility from NFL teams that used to simply wait for the ticket orders to flow in. That, like the sound of a marching band pumping through “Louie, Louie” at halftime, is a welcome return.


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