With those three neutered on many levels, the most powerful men in America next year could very well be Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith. Goodell is the well-known commissioner of the NFL. Smith isn't a household name, but could hold great influence over your living room. Smith is head of the NFL Players Association.
Not to mention, the massive businesses of four networks and DirecTV. All are increasingly relying on the NFL as a tentpole. To a certain extent, TV industry potentates such as Leslie Moonves, Rupert Murdoch and Dick Ebersol are at the mercy of Goodell and Smith.
What would America do without the NFL? Ratings are soaring and may never plateau. Whether it's fantasy football or gambling or the Michael Vick fascination (unstoppable or unforgivable?) or simply a game that meshes so well with the TV screen, the interest in the NFL is electric.
Will Goodell or Smith pull the plug?
With the NFL's labor contract up after the season, negotiations on a new one are becoming increasingly brutal. Goodell obviously leads the NFL side. Smith is the lead on the other.
Even flush with cash from networks, the league wants to curtail player salaries. Smith has no intention of giving wealthy owners a larger share of the revenue trough. Trying to place the onus on the league, Smith continues to say the NFL is likely to lock out the players.
That would mean empty Sundays for many next September -- from fans and beer to CBS, Fox and NBC. DirecTV wouldn't have its popular "Sunday Ticket" that brings subscribers. ESPN would be without "Monday Night Football" a day later.
The NFL may not be a money-maker by itself, but networks operate under the proposition that its high tide lifts their boats on multiple levels.
While Goodell and Smith hold huge sway, they do answer to constituencies that could overrule their advice on deal terms. Team owners could ask Goodell to modify positions. The players who make up Smith's union could vote to compromise on some issues.
The last time the NFL lost games to a work stoppage was 1987, when replacement players were used. But the league's popularity wasn't nearly what it is today, and lost games carry much more risk.
Besides huge financial growth, there are other factors that have emerged that could play a role in moving the sides together. Notably: the 1994 Major League Baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series and devastated the sport for years.
Also, the NFL's popularity is such that it's annual spring draft -- not a game -- has become a huge hit with fans. The bet is the Goodell-Smith negotiations will grow nasty until the eve before the first pick in April and an agreement in principle will then be reached.
Investors frequently ask top executives who oversee networks ludicrous questions about the financial implications of losing NFL games. The answer is always the same: It would sting, so we hope the two sides can come together.
In response to the nitwit inquiry about what a network could do to replace the NFL, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves said basically nothing. But he said he and his CFO are willing to go toss the ball around and hope there's some interest. Moonves might have a superlative arm, but replacement players didn't work before.