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Lifting the lockout brings back football, but not progress

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- What's probably best for NFL fans, in the short term, is for Judge Susan Nelson to rule in favor of the players following Wednesday's hearing of the Tom Brady et al v. the National Football League et al case, and grant an injunction lifting the league-imposed lockout.

What's good for the game, long-term, might be another story entirely.

Yes, if an injunction is granted and Nelson's ruling holds up in an appellate court, the league will be forced to swing its doors back open for business. Revenue will start flowing back into the money clips of owners and players while the fight over the financial structure of the game moves backstage. And yes, that means you'll have your football in the fall.

But in the meantime, the brakes will be pressed on the business of football. The momentum the game has built over the last two decades in becoming to America what soccer is to Great Britain, or hockey is to Canada, could be slowed significantly.

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How heavy will the damage be? That depends on who you talk to.

For a microcosm, though, one need only look back to the 2010 season, when clubs were reluctant to commit big money -- to players or otherwise -- because of the looming labor uncertainty. No salary floor existed, and the overall result was everyone (players included) lost an opportunity to capitalize on another year smack in the heart of the NFL's golden age.

The circumstances before 2010 were largely created by the willingness of all to think, invest and plan forward. The cloud of looming labor strife stunted that ability to grow, and if the league moves forward and plays without a CBA and with an antitrust case in court, there could well be a series of 2010-like seasons in front of us.

The fans might win. But standing to take a loss could be the owners, the players, and the game itself.

Now, on the NFLPA side, the idea is that those losses are minimal compared to the hit that would be incurred if games are lost. The league side, predictably, sees it differently.

From the owners' standpoint, operating under the threat of treble damage liability -- in layman's terms, the triple damages being sought by the NFLPA -- would be tough to stomach when the structure of the league (draft, franchise tags, salary cap/floor, benefits, etc.) is being challenged and remains uncertain into the future.

"It would be almost impossible to operate under those circumstances," said one league executive. "Teams couldn't make any significant investments for the future. There would be no way to build stadiums, expand into new markets, increase television coverage, bring new technologies into play.

"There would be no way to do any joint marketing with the players. There would be no basis for improvements in retired player benefits. Conflict would be the norm."

But it was a similar conflict, in fact, that helped to create the league's current structure. Following the failed player strike of 1987, the NFLPA decertified and the players took the league to antitrust court, just as they did last month.

The league's growth during the six years that followed without a CBA certainly wasn't what it would become over the 18 years after the union recertified in 1993 and the framework of the current conditions were put into place. But it also wasn't exactly a similar scenario to Major League Baseball in 1995, either.

"The league operated without a CBA for all of 1987 through 1993 and it did just fine," said an NFLPA source. "There is no reason to think the NFL will be any less popular with fans, sponsors or networks without a CBA. Do you think a CBA affects ratings or fan interest?"

It might not. But there are areas where not having a CBA in place could seriously dent the league.

The NFLPA contends that the G-3 fund -- which loaned money to clubs for stadium construction -- and other incentives to build new venues can be reinstituted by owners without player involvement. But the likelihood of that happening in the described conditions isn't good, which would leave the future of the league in places like Minnesota and San Diego on hold, and put those franchises on standby.

On top of that, AEG CEO Tim Leiweke told NFL.com two months ago that his project in downtown Los Angeles was contingent on the "right CBA." So without an agreement to speak of, the future of the NFL in the nation's second-largest market would also likely be delayed, putting the Staples Center project in peril.

Then there's the trickledown to the players. Last offseason, the Patriots, Colts and Saints all cited the uncertain labor future as a major obstacle to extending the contracts of their franchise quarterbacks (Tom Brady got his; Peyton Manning and Drew Brees didn't get theirs). Dozens of lower-profile players found themselves in similar situations, with a similar message from teams. On top of that, hundreds of fourth- and fifth-year players were hit by the change in free-agency rules during the uncapped year. It's likely those rules would carry over.

What is up for debate is how the league's growth in two areas -- sponsorship and advances in technology -- would diminish without a CBA. An NFLPA source put it bluntly in saying, "People invest in profitable businesses, and the NFL is highly profitable." The source also took the idea that spending was down as a result of the looming labor problem to task.

"There is no evidence that any owner refused to invest one dollar as a result of any uncertainty," said the NFLPA source. "As the teams are all profitable, the owners will invest."

That point is part of this case as well: Any money lost by players as a result of the current situation could come back later in damages. But it also might not, which would leave the players in the same limbo as the owners.

Either way, all of that would be in the hands of the courts.

"The scenario outlined would be damaging in a lot of ways," said the league executive about the prospect of playing without a CBA. "The entire sport would be focused on court hearings, trials and appeals."

So as Nelson hears the case Wednesday and works toward a ruling (likely to be followed by the appeals process), millions of fans will be rooting for an injunction to lift the lockout.

But the truth is the sport itself might be better off without an injunction, forcing the sides to resolve their differences now rather than entering a legal process that could take years to play out.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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