Selling Canton

After an offseason saturated by labor coverage, the NFL season has sprinted out of the blocks. But lost in the shuffle of Nnamdis and Naanees, a small detail has been ignored.

Every year since 1967 (and the four years before 1966), the NFL season kicked off in Canton, Ohio, at least in spirit, if not chronologically. The game has developed into an appropriate punctuation of Hall of Fame Weekend, signaling the transition from offseason, represented by the induction ceremony of retired greats, to the excitement of current players bringing in the coming season.

But 2011 will not be like all those previous years, because the first casualty of the better-late-than-never NFL CBA is the Hall of Fame Game. Oh sure, the NFL will certainly find a way to make up the $1 million hit the hall itself took by not having the game. But the vendors and hospitality firms of Canton will not be so lucky.

The key to negotiations is brinkmanship, a five-dollar word for the willingness to threaten the other side with mutually harmful actions. For the owners and players, brinksmanship was embodied by how close to missing game revenue they were willing to go. This is why a settlement before late July was very unlikely; each side felt that by waiting, it had the potential to reach a more favorable deal based on the other side's fear of missing games.

What is very telling about the negotiations is which deadline ultimately drove the two sides to make a deal. It was not the threat of losing games (as the cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game shows), but rather the threat to the owners of losing games in their own stadiums. By responding to this specific threat and not the loss of games in general, the owners (and indirectly, the players) spat on Induction Weekend.

This is not a populist plea for the little guy or an overvaluation of the good old days. If the NFL announced today that the unofficial start to football season had outgrown Canton, with its high school stadium and a too-small airport, it would be a logical, if cold, business decision. Have the game in Las Vegas as part of an industry convention, or just sell it to the highest bidder. But that's not what the owners or players did.

Canton and the Hall of Fame Game have come to represent the traditions of professional football. It has been an oasis in a long desert of summer, the driest sports season. And yet, while the owners snapped into deal-making mode by the looming prospect of lost preseason revenue, they never thought twice about leaving behind a tradition with roots nearly as deep as the Super Bowl.

There are two key myths the 2011 NFL lockout and its resolution have debunked. The first is the wildly exaggerated "year-round" NFL. For all of the front office griping, somehow teams have signed free agents and draft picks and started training camps concurrently in a one-week window. In previous seasons, this took half of the calendar year.

If nothing else, the past two weeks have shown that activity of the NFL offseason is intentionally diluted to benefit the league itself and its media partners. TV networks (for example, the very one owned by the NFL), printed publications, and websites have hours and inches to fill every day. If the NFL offseason were condensed every year, as it has been this year, those outlets could not spread the news across the seven months between games. They would have to find other content to fill that void.

Reciprocally, the league benefits from this arrangement, too. Did your favorite team sign a top free agent in March? It kind of makes you want to buy his jersey, right? Or maybe your team drafted a quarterback of the future in April, signed him in June, and showed him off at training camp in August. Those would all be great times to buy season tickets.

The second myth the owners and players exposed is their dedication to the game's tradition. At this time next year, the game's legends will head toward Northeast Ohio for the 2012 Induction Weekend. At this point, Roger Goodell will trumpet the great lineage of the game and how much it means to the NFL. Don't believe it.

The NFL is a business — a gloriously successful business — and, as such, it makes profit-driven decisions. And that is exactly how it got to be such a thriving league. But by casually dismissing the 2011 Hall of Fame Game, both the players and owners sent a clear message. To channel Curt Schilling's 2001 evaluation of Yankee Stadium, Tradition and History are just two (poorly named) strippers down the road in Canton who, thanks to the NFL, are working a little harder to make ends meet this year.

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