NFL Lockout Sparks Necessary Roughness for Ordinary Workers
March 23, 2011/The Wall Street Journal: The National Football League’s first work stoppage since 1987 is upsetting not just the routines and incomes of players and coaches, but those of the 3,000 employees — many in sales in marketing — estimated to work in business operations at the NFL and its teams.
The New York Jets said in February that 96 employees would be forced to take a week of unpaid leave each month until a new labor agreement is reached. The Arizona Cardinals may force employees take a one-week furlough in late May. The Jets, the Baltimore Ravens, the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears have announced hiring freezes.
The Ravens have cut salaries by an unspecified amount, said spokesman Kevin Byrne, while the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs have hinted they, too, will cut pay.
Meanwhile, the NFL itself has instituted salary cuts for league staffers. Employees for the NFL league office, NFL.com, and NFL Films will have their salaries reduced by 12%. In the event the lockout continues into August, management-level league employees will receive pay cuts based on position: 5% for managers and 25% for executive vice presidents
The NFL owners locked out its players after failed talks for a new collective bargaining agreement with the National Football League Players Association. The two sides will meet again on April 6, when the players will likely ask a United States District Judge for an injunction to lift the lockout.
The prospect of an extended lockout brings about a set of challenges for the sales and marketing departments of each team. The uncertainty surrounding the NFL’s pre- and regular seasons may have already complicated existing marketing partnerships with other brands, said one former NFL marketing executive.
An NFL team’s marketing group spends the off season trying to lock in new sponsorship deals with beverage, auto, and other companies said the former executive, who did not wish to be named for this story.
If the lockout lasts well into the pre-season, sponsors who had previously bought radio time over the course of a team’s twenty games — which includes the four pre-season games and sixteen regular season games — may have to receive a credit or be completely reimbursed by that team, said the former executive.
When a lockout looked certain for the National Hockey League before the 2004-5 season, the league prepared itself by cutting league staff, said Ed Horne, who was president of NHL Enterprises at the time. Despite the cuts, Horne thought it essential to keep some salespeople and marketers working for the league office.
“Clearly you needed a business to come back to, so there were people in the sales and marketing areas that were retained and were working hard to manage relationships and continue to keep our partners informed,” said Horne, who is now the chief operating officer of Madison Avenue Sports and Entertainment.
For sales and marketing employees, when there is no season to advertise or to sell season tickets, luxury suites or sponsorships for, sometimes the only thing to do is to maintain constant communication with customers, said one NHL team executive.
The NHL’s Experience
In 2004, when the NHL season looked lost for the year, the sales and marketing department for the San Jose Sharks maintained their visibility by reaching out to their season ticket holders and inviting them to a free minor league hockey game and a movie screening, said Malcolm Bordelon, executive vice president of business operations for the Sharks.
“We weren’t hiding during this process,” said Bordelon. “We just felt the obligation to do our best to keep fans and sponsors and suite owners in the loop.”
Layoffs, however, were unavoidable, said Bordelon. Nearly 15 Sharks employees were cut through a combination of layoffs and attrition; others had their salaries frozen or reduced.
When the lockout eventually ends, it is up to the sales and marketing staff to help bring back business.
By maintaining contact with the Sharks’ sponsors and season ticket holders, Bordelon’s staff were able to quickly bring them back into the fold once the NHL lockout ended in 2005.
“We came out of that with a very, very strong renewal rate, and I know they were up in the 90 percentage points in terms of tickets and sponsorships,” said Bordelon.
No matter how well-organized a sales and marketing team is, if the upcoming NFL season is lost for the year, what is destined to follow is a long period of uncertainty and stress, said Bordelon.
“Once you lost the season, at that point you really felt lost because there was a sense of, ‘is the sport coming back? And how will it look when it comes back?’” said Bordelon. “It’s not a fun thing to go through.”