NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith: Unintentionally helping MLS?

National Football League fans will know what I mean when I say 2011 could be a very interesting year. With the country's most popular sports league showing all the signs of heading for a lockout, the possibility exists that there will be no fall Sundays spent watching enormous men battle it out on the gridiron.

Should a lockout happen, a massive sports void will open in the American calendar. From August (when NFL training camp and preseason games begin) until the end of the MLS season in November, the behemoth will be absent. Baseball (through the beginning of November), hockey (starting early October) and basketball (beginning in late October) will have the run of the sports landscape without the dominating and attention-hording presence of the NFL. While baseball still holds a special place in the hearts of many Americans, NFL fans won't be sated by it alone. Meanwhile, hockey is a niche sport that won't capture most casual fans until their playoffs, and early season basketball carries little drama.

The situation seems perfect for a certain American soccer league to step into the void.

As the "other" professional sports competition going on during the early portion of potential lost NFL year, perhaps MLS is in a position to benefit. The league won't convert millions of gridiron fans looking for a stand-in sports product overnight, but it's very possible they can pick up a few more eyeballs. A lack of NFL news might even garner Major League Soccer more time on the prominent sports news shows; without the week of review/preview for each and every NFL game to fill the usual amount of airtime, ESPN and SportsCenter will be scrambling for content. Soccer (MLS included, with all hope) is a natural temporary replacement.

Much of it would be out of the league's hands. They certainly can't make sports fans watch their product, and converting the entrenched anti-soccer crowd is near impossible and hardly worth the effort. Much of the American soccer fan base are also fans of the NFL; the cancelling of a gridiron season won't change their viewing habits anyway, though Euro-focused fans might be swayed to give the domestic game a chance based simply on time zones. When EPL and La Liga matches are over for the day and there is no NFL to watch as they normally would, maybe MLS grabs them.

What the league can control is placing matches in the usual NFL windows on Sunday afternoons during the fall of 2011. This would require a deviation from the norm for those few months, since the majority of the schedule takes place on Saturdays; but a few NFL-less SundayS in September and October are simply be too good to pass up. After years of fall Sundays spent sitting in front of a television watching sports on TV at 1 and 4, 12 and 3, 11 and 2, and 10 and 1 (not to mention the night game), will Americans simply change their habits because there's no NFL?

Most will. There should be no delusion about massive numbers deciding to watch to Fire v. Galaxy because the Cowboys and Giants aren't on. But even a small number represents a net gain for MLS, so switching a few schedules around should be an obvious step to take. Simply moving a handful of Saturday dates to Sunday (allowing for the usual stadium availability and local concerns), would provide Americans with alternate sports viewing in place of the NFL. Getting those games nationally televised in every case might be more difficult, but with contracts up (hello, Versus) and ESPN in a position to utilize a property they already have, it's not beyond the realm of possibility. A clever marketing campaign or two could be enormously effective.

There's a long way to go before we'll know if any of the 2011 NFL season will be lost. The tough talk emanating from both sides now might fade away before the situation comes to a head, and one side or the other may back down in the face of lost revenue and salaries. But this wouldn't be the first time labor strife has hit the NFL, and with the league playing the 2010 season without a salary cap because of the ongoing impasse, several signs point to an "inevitable" lockout. MLS would be remiss if they didn't attempt to put themselves in position to capitalize on wayward sports fans desperately searching for something to watch on their Sunday afternoons come Fall 2011.

The window is short, and it's debatable how much effort MLS should put into trying to leverage the NFL's potential lockout. It would take money and resources to produce a campaign to draw in disillusioned and aimless NFL fans, and there's no guarantee that it would have any effect or that the cost could be justified. Still, MLS isn't in a position to let any opportunity pass, and relying on hope and wishes to turn a few football fans into futbol fans would be just that - Letting an opportunity pass.

It's easy for me to say that no NFL in 2011 could be Major League Soccer's gain, and I'm admittedly way out in front of something that is more than a year away. But if you were running MLS, a league that must press every advantage it has to improve its penetration into a crowded sports market, wouldn't you be considering a strategic plan even now?
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