What if NFL labor talks break down Thursday and football owners lock out their players?
On one hand, lack of agreement by the Thursday midnight deadline wouldn't preclude more negotiations between rich players and even richer owners over the $9 billion chunk of change that is the league's annual honey pot.
But a lockout puts the 2011 NFL season into question. And that prospect is one that the NFL deeply wants to avoid, worried that any lost games – or an entirely lost season – could cost the league its status as the unrivaled king of the American sports landscape.
But would it?
In a press conference before the Super Bowl last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said pro football was not immune to the kind of fan backlash that struck Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League in the years after they lost seasons to labor disputes.
“I have said repeatedly that the fans want football and if we are not successful in reaching an agreement that [backlash] will be toward the commissioner, toward the clubs, toward the players, toward everyone involved,” Mr. Goodell said Feb. 4.
Baseball needed a steroid-induced home run chase to recover from canceling the last two months of its regular season and the World Series in 1994. Hockey has only now begun to recover from its 2004-2005 lockout year, boosted by rule changes to make the game higher scoring and the emergence of stars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Yet the NFL's connection to modern America might be so deep that it can weather labor troubles better than baseball and hockey did. The once-a-week Sunday ritual, the devotion to fantasy football leagues, and the fascination with the gladiatorial nature of pro football makes it a sport that is difficult to replace.
“It will bounce back, because it meets a function in society, even though it goes through readjustments from time to time," says Bowling Green University sociologist Eldon Snyder, author of an article in the Journal of American Culture called "Football and American Identity."
The 1987 players strike, where owners used replacement players, irritated fans and led to less-than-full stadiums but did not irrevocably damage the game. Since that time, the popularity of the game has risen year by year.
The two sides in the current dispute are split about how to divvy up $9 billion in gate and TV revenues. Included in that equation are issues including a rookie wage scale and a proposal to add two more games to the current 16-game season.
If an agreement isn't met by Thursday, players have vowed to decertify the National Football League Players Association ahead of the deadline. While the stated reason is so players can take the NFL to court for antitrust violations, dismantling the union would also give players the ability to sign personal contracts directly with teams.
Given what happened in 1987, when striking players stepped over the picket line after only five weeks of replacement play, owners are confident that a work stoppage would cause today's players to buckle to owners' demands in late spring or early summer rather than August, at the start of training camp, says University of Illinois labor expert Michael LeRoy.
At least publicly, however, the NFL's players and owners aren't taking fans for granted.
"We want the fans to know that we're trying. We're trying," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash told the AP. "We understand our responsibility, and if we don't get it done, we know that we'll have let them down. And we take that very seriously. So do our owners."