Last week, 330 fresh-from-college players, just under 1,000 coaches, executives and scouts and over 700 credentialed media members flooded Indianapolis for the NFL’s annual scouting combine. It is the closest thing that professional football has to a convention; even a late-night trip to the flagship Steak ‘n Shake downtown yields an autograph seeker’s dream of football glitterati.
I’ve been to quite a few of these, and there’s always palpable uncertainty at the combine. Players don’t know where — or in many cases, if — they’ll be drafted. Coaches, executives and scouts don’t know if they’ll be unemployed soon, the result of drafting the wrong players. And this year there was even more unease than ever, courtesy of the unsettled labor situation in the NFL. As of this moment, owners and players have yet to reach agreement on a collective bargaining agreement; if the two sides fail to work out a deal or an extension to negations by one week from today, a work stoppage will occur. Now, most of the fretting and hand-wringing about this impasse has centered on the players and the owners (and their money). But I’m a former website writer for the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, so naturally the thing I’m wondering about is: What happens to the team websites?
As official sites required to toe the corporate party line, their coverage of negotiations between the league and players union is limited to the statements the league posts on NFLLabor.com. The mere mention of labor strife is so touchy that some teams won’t even let their sites post the word “lockout.” In an typical offseason, team sites would dispatch staffers to the locker room this month to catch up with players going through workouts or injury rehabilitation, and generally sketch happy tales of a promising season to keep fans excited until the games kick in again. For some teams, creating an upbeat tone is a higher priority than breaking news to build web traffic. Their sites’ mission is to build and reinforce a positive image; any high page-view totals are a bonus. But in a locked-out offseason, players will be banned from team facilities — and reporters and producers from team websites will be discouraged from making contact with them. Even players-in-the-community events, normally a feel-good staple of the sites’ content diet, will vanish. As Fox Sports reported earlier this week, it’s possible that teams might have to pull player photos and interviews and even quotes from their sites. (The NFL Players Association might argue that teams are using player images to market teams and boost ticket sales.)
So, what should the web-addicted fan expect? Well, team sites might quickly become hollowed-out husks, offering little more than draft-day countdowns and abandoning all talk of the (thorny) present for looks at the (rosier) future. That’s why staffers from many team sites spent the combine banking tasty quotes from potential draft picks — squirrel before winter-style — so that they have something to publish in the next eight weeks.
The problem is, that only gets them to late April. If a lockout persists into May and June, daily site updates will dwindle to weekly ones, and then perhaps stop altogether. For many sites, that will mean turning the focus from a team’s (unsettled) future to the (rosier!) past, dredging up warm and fuzzy memories to soothe their increasingly distressed supporters.
That won’t be hard for the 92-year-old Green Bay Packers, whose history merits a Tolkien-thick tome. But if you’re the nine-year-old Houston Texans and you’ve never had a playoff game, your history fits in a leaflet; tales of glory from the David Carr era will get you through about a week.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Should a lockout endures into July, August and beyond, many staffers who produce these sites might not be around; if the cash-printing regular season is threatened, expect a purge of tech folk from Seattle to South Beach, as team sites devolve into little more than brochureware.
That is the ultimate fear of most NFL team web staffers: lost jobs, lost traffic, and lost fans during what could be the longest offseason — and the first lost season — of the modern digital age.
Andrew Mason is the editor and publisher of MaxDenver.com. He is a former producer and editor for NFL.com, and spent six season as web editor for the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.
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