Attracting the time and money of primarily male football fans and the marketers that hotly pursue them is an intriguing proposition. It most likely would involve the quick, inexpensive creation of alternatives, using digital interactive technology that was not prevalent during the last fallout between the players' union and team owners.
While there is no apple-to-apples substitute for great American football, and it is uncertain whether convoluted collective bargaining talks will result in a lockout, one thing is clear. Digital media makes it easier to bid for the attention and dollars of temporarily dislocated fans and marketers.
Some of the resulting new video games, social media activities, collaborative play and content could stick and thrive even after pro football returns to the scene. It underscores the spontaneity and creativity that abounds on interactive platforms.
In the event of a lockout, there would be a scramble for the more than $30 billion in direct and indirect dollars generated by and around an NFL season that will be transferred piecemeal, according to Needham analyst Laura Martin.
That's the opportunity. The field (no pun intended) is wide open.
While there is nothing like the thrill of real-life football and dependent fantasy league play for diehards, fans need their fix. But because 98% of sports programming is live, lucrative replacements will not be easy.
Surely real-time alternative sports, such as college football, professional hockey and soccer, will hone in on what Martin estimates is $3 billion spent by consumers and about $4 billion spent by advertisers in conjunction with the NFL.
Broadcast TV networks would continue to pay $4 billion in rights fees during the lockout, but could see an uptick in profit margins while revenues are missing. They still have the impetus to concoct TV challenges tailored for football players sidelined by the dispute -- call it "End Zone," "Third Down" or "Survival of the Fittest." How about a Donald Trump-styled dispute resolution face-off called "Mad Mediation?" The Donald can crack open the enigma (and financial books) of some 32 billionaire team owners or take a look at players' off-season lives. (Chris Johnson, the NFL's fastest player, has said he will run track professionally during a lockout.)
Any programming, even with artistic promise, would likely be a poor financial substitute by comparison. Although the NFL plays the fewest games of all four of the major sports leagues, they generate the highest overall revenue and ratings, averaging about 16.6 million TV viewers per game. February's Super Bowl delivered a record 106 million viewers.
But digital media could have an advantage in serendipitously serving up interactive gaming or other pastimes that dish up some of the same things football fans love about the game. Powerful existing platforms, such as ESPN, Facebook, Zynga -- and even any of the fantasy football franchises tied to real-life game play -- create alternative entertainment, social networking and other content that capitalizes on pro football's appeal.
Electronic Arts and other video game producers could tweak and remarket existing franchises. For instance, EA's top-selling Madden football games could be temporarily redesigned to operate off of computer-generated game and player statistics using historical records. EA paid more than $350 million for exclusive NFL rights from 2009 to 2012.
"The best question relating to value created by the NFL for the TV ecosystem is whether the NFL takes all the economics through rapidly escalating rights fees, but none of the risk of fracturing audiences," Martin poses. A work stoppage that elongates into next season would irritate fans and tarnish the NFL's brand image, but crack open a window for others to mine its core appeal.
Based on the business model and statistics, Martin concludes that the NFL is the best bet in sports for its support of marketers' brands and its pursuit of maximizing TV license fees that comprise 50% of the NFL's annual revenues. The trickle-down impact of the NFL lockout could be especially devastating for DirecTV, which pays about $1 billion annually for the out-of-market games for which about 2 million of its 18.3 million subscribers cough up $300 million annually to view.
NBC pays $650 million annually for Sunday-night games, which generate $850 million in advertising. CBS pays about $622.5 million annually for Sunday-afternoon AFC games' $825 million in ad revenues. Fox pays $712.5 million annually for Sunday NFC games, generating $975 million in ad revenues.
ESPN pays about $1.1 billion annually for Monday-night football games, largely subsidized by affiliate and subscriber fees, generate about $175 million in ad revenues. ESPN's contribution of about 35% of Walt Disney Co.'s annual earnings would be safe, since it has plenty of other sports to spread around.
The bigger trickle-down is to local bars and restaurants, grocery stores and businesses dependent upon fan game attendance and at-home euphoria.
The big winners will be anyone who can grab the attention of digitally empowered consumers and marketers always eager to embrace that next new thing. And that means lockouts, walk-outs and strikes involving content will never be the same again.