On Wednesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holders participated in an exclusive conference call with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. During a question-and-answer period that lasted more than 30 minutes, Goodell addressed such issues as the labor negotiations, free agency, the quality of the upcoming season and the economic impact of being an active NFL fan.
Speaking to a concerned group of Buccaneers fans, Goodell stressed on several occasions that both clubs and the players are proceeding in their negotiations with a profound sense of urgency. The commissioner commiserated with one Buccaneer fan from North Carolina who has to arrange his travel plans in order to make use of his season tickets.
"[That] is one of the reasons we've got to get this agreement done sooner rather than later, so that people can plan," said Goodell. "We do not have a 'drop-dead date.' Obviously, the season is rapidly is approaching and everyone's feeling that sense of urgency within the NFL – meaning the clubs and the players. Hopefully, the drop-dead date won't even be an issue because we'll be able to resolve it before we have any risk to any aspect of the season."
Goodell understands that fans are anxious to see the league return to business as usual so that their teams can adequately prepare for the upcoming season. An important part of that equation is free agency, which in a normal year would be close to finished at this point on the calendar.
"I think that's again why there's a sense of urgency," he said. "I think everyone wants to have some period of free agency where there can be the kind of player movement that we've had. That time is shrinking, and that's one of the issues that is creating the urgency and the ability to say, 'Let's get these issues resolved sooner rather than later.' Because that free agency period is important. Obviously, the longer we go [before a resolution] the less likely their will be an extensive period. We're all working at it and hopefully we'll be successful at that."
Goodell said he is proud of how hard the league's players work in any given offseason, and that commitment continues to be reflected in the workouts and conditioning exercises in which many are currently participating. He indicated that less extensive offseason work may be more of a norm in the league's future, anyway, as part of the NFL's ongoing health and safety initiatives. With the offseason calendar creeping closer to the traditional start of training camps around the league, Goodell remains convinced that there is still time to prepare for and play a full, high-quality campaign in 2011.
"Obviously, whatever we do, it's one of the reasons we want to get this agreement done sooner rather than later, to take the uncertainty out, get back to football and make sure we can ensure the type of quality football we've had in the past," said the commissioner. "I believe we still have time to do that, that the quality will still be outstanding football. If we continue to work and we get this agreement rather than later, we'll see that kind of great football that you've seen in the past."
Goodell responded to one fan's inquiry about staging more Super Bowls in Raymond James Stadium by reminding him that the Bay area has been chosen as one of two finalists to serve as host for the 2015 game. The decision between Tampa and Glendale, Arizona will likely be made this fall, he said. Goodell also defended the purpose of the NFL's ongoing blackout policy while promising that the league would continue to consider ways of modifying it. More than anything, he stressed that both sides in the labor negotiations understand that the nation continues to deal with difficult economic times, and that the league and its member clubs constantly looks for ways to reduce the monetary burden for fans. In fact, he said that concern is a critical part of the negotiations and their intended resolution.
"People are concerned with providing for their families, concerned with the prices of gasoline, concerned with maintaining their jobs," said Goodell. "This has been part of our discussions: We can't continue to shift the costs – the rising player costs and the rising cost of operating an NFL franchise – to our fans. There's just a limit to what you can do on that, and that's one of the reasons why we're trying to get a better economic model. We're trying to make sure we address other aspects in our labor agreement that I think we'll make the game better for the long term. I think everyone understands that."
Goodell praised clubs like Tampa Bay for working with its fans to make it possible for them to continue to purchase season tickets. In 2011, for the third consecutive seasons, the Buccaneers kept ticket prices the same or reduced them in every section. The team has also introduced a variety of flexible payment plans in recent years, including a new 10-month option that began with the 2011 season tickets.
Goodell also assured Buccaneer ticket holders that the clubs and the players consider the fans to be a critical part of the equation in the current negotiations. He said the league understands that there will be a negative impact on fans and their willingness to engage with the NFL if the dispute continues into the fall, which is spurring the current sense of urgency.
"I think any time we're talking, that's a positive, because I believe both finds want to find solutions," he said. "I believe it's the objective of everybody involved in the NFL to play a full 2011 season. That's certainly what we're working towards, and I think the players are working towards that, too. It's for the good of the game, it's for the good of the people involved in the game, and it's absolutely good for the fans. Everyone's working hard and I'm hopeful that we're going to be successful."