As NFL labor strife grows closer, I'm going to be fascinated by how fans respond. Will their presumed anger manifest itself in the one quantifiable measure we have this time of year?
Will fans renew their season tickets?
Every team follows its own structure for renewal, but in most cases the process is either underway or soon will be. The Minnesota Vikings are requiring a down payment by Feb. 23. The Green Bay Packers expect payment 60 days after the end of the season. The Chicago Bears have set an April deadline. (The Detroit Lions are not advertising a deadline.)
You can join all the Internet protests you want, but the most direct way to be heard is to hit owners in their wallets. Let's be clear here: By renewing your season tickets on schedule, you're contributing to the league's lockout fund.
In December, the NFL announced it will refund ticket payments for any games that are canceled by a lockout. Season-ticket holders will have the option to apply for account credit, while each team will determine its own policy for club seats and suites.
From the Associated Press story: "Refunds will be paid within 30 days once the NFL determines how many games will be played in 2011."
This policy has been bugging me ever since it was announced. To be fair, commissioner Roger Goodell didn't advertise it as anything more than a confirmation of what we would all presume is a formality. It's by no means a gesture of any kind. In fact, it's a gift to the NFL.
There is no harm if the 2011 season begins on schedule. But if any games are canceled, season-ticket holders will be giving teams free use of their money until at least the end of the lockout. Owners can use that cash to help fund their operations during the work stoppage before potentially returning some of it in the fall or winter. We laymen would call that an interest-free loan.
It's not for me to encourage a boycott or any other dramatic movement. And I realize that anyone who cancels their season tickets now would, at the very least, end up at the back of the priority line when the games return. Given the waiting lists in Green Bay and Chicago, you might never get back to the front.
But if nothing else, I hope everyone realizes exactly what the NFL is asking of them when it comes to season tickets. If the league wanted to make a true gesture toward fans who are already growing anxious, it would require teams to push back ticket payments until after a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached.
Part of me wants to congratulate the NFL for having the capacity to compel its customers to pay in advance for a product that it admits might not be delivered. Ultimately, however, the decision lies with the customer. Will fans go along with this scheme? Or will we see and hear about measurable declines in season-ticket renewals? It's time to find out just how mad NFL fans really are.
Related: ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski suggests the NFL is "selectively listening" to the wishes of fans when it comes to an 18-game regular season.