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Strike three?

Sports | NFL players and owners are stuck in a labor dispute that they doubt will hurt the game's popularity

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

Even if Brett Favre wanted to renege on his retirement yet again for one more shot at glory, the star quarterback would likely find himself without a team or even a league. That may be the lone positive to emerge from the present NFL labor dispute, which threatens cancellation of the 2011 season.

The previous collective bargaining agreement between owners and players expired on March 11, triggering a series of escalating negotiation tactics that now have both sides bunkered in legal stalemate. The players union has disbanded, precluding any return to productive talks. In response, the owners have instituted a lockout. And in turn, the players have filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court.

At the center of the disagreement lies the same culprit that has generated most every labor stoppage in American professional sports history-money. The owners want a bigger share, and the players don't want to give it. For many fans, the argument smacks of spoiled millionaires squabbling over pay raises. But for all the bad press and ill will this fight will stir up, players and owners seem largely indifferent to potential impacts on the NFL's popularity. Maybe such nonchalance is the product of greed. Or maybe, players and owners simply know their history-that when it comes to football, threats of fan abandonment rarely hold water. Here's a look at the impacts of past work stoppages in professional athletics:

1972 MLB strike

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• The first players' strike in Major League Baseball history lasted just 13 days, costing teams between six and nine games. Impact on fan interest proved negligible.

1981 MLB strike

• The two-month players strike forced baseball to split the season in two, producing a quirky playoff format that denied playoff spots to two teams with the best full-season records in the National League. Fans showed their disapproval with attendance dips in 17 of 24 cities and dramatic declines in television ratings. Still, the Aug. 9 all-star game had the largest crowd ever at 72,086.

1982 NFL strike

• Players walked off the job for 57 days, cutting the regular season to just nine games. When players returned to action in late November, fans returned in droves. The season culminated in Super Bowl XVII, the second-highest-rated championship game in NFL history at the time.

1987 NFL strike

• The players struck for a full month during the season, but managed only to foil one game as owners quickly assembled replacement teams made up of veterans, players cut from training camps, and some stars who crossed the picket line. The tactic forced an end to the strike. The season culminated in a landmark Super Bowl XXII, when Washington Redskins star Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to play in and win a Super Bowl.

1994-95 MLB strike

• The 232-day strike cost baseball its entire 1994 postseason, a labor dispute first in American professional sports. The shortened 1995 season witnessed a 20 percent dip in attendance. The meager crowds present for the first few games voiced their displeasure with incessant booing and insults. One fan in Cincinnati paid for an airplane to fly over Riverfront Stadium dragging a banner that captured the sentiment: "Owners & Players: To hell with all of you!"

1998-99 NBA lockout

• Prior to 1998, the NBA was the only major U.S. sports league never to cancel any games over labor disputes. But when owners were unable to secure new salary cap limits, they instituted a 204-day lockout that forced league officials to cut the regular season down to just 50 games. For the next three consecutive seasons, television ratings dropped and per game attendance slacked. Of course, the retirement of Michael Jordan didn't help.

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