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Our Views: No play, no pay
NFL labor woes may seem trivial, but the economic fallout could be painful
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

A treasured summer tradition is in limbo these days: the annual July trek of football fans to watch the Atlanta Falcons' preseason camp.

In a time when the economic news is still good one day and bad the next; when county governments face the choice between drastic budget cuts or higher taxes; and when floods, tornadoes, fires and other disasters fill the news, it's hard to care much about the National Football League's little intramural spat.

Back in March, NFL owners locked out the players when their collective bargaining agreement ended. The courts have since suspended the lockout, then reinstated it. The league and players association has negotiated, tried and failed at mediation, and remain apart on a labor deal.

What's it all about? What it's always about: money. Owners want to keep more of it. Players want more of their share, figuring they should receive more compensation for a game that leaves many of them crippled for life once they're done playing it.

But unless you're a diehard NFL fan, why should you care if these billionaires and millionaires can't get together and decide how to split up the truckloads of money their little game earns each year?

Because it doesn't just affect the players and owners, that's why. And in a time when the economic recovery is in danger of slipping us back into recession, every little bit counts.

The Falcons hold their annual training camp at its Flowery Branch headquarters starting in mid-July. That brings football-starved fans to Hall County from all over the South to take in practices and scrimmages. While they are here, they buy food, drinks and gas. Visiting media and others may rent hotel rooms.

An exact dollar figure on the Falcons' economic footprint on the county is hard to measure. More important, perhaps, than the dollars actually spent on the team is the exposure the county and city earn in the national media.

"You can't buy that kind of news media coverage ... every time they announce from Flowery Branch, Ga., all over the U.S. and overseas," Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce President Kit Dunlap said before last year's training camp.

The team also has made a mark on the community beyond dollars. Flowery Branch High and Davis Middle School have partnered with the NFL club, getting equipment from the team and tutelage from players. Falcon players are frequently seen around town taking part in charitable events.

And remember, a lot of the players and coaches also are area residents. That means they spend money at local businesses, and they certainly have plenty of it to spend, yet not as much when the checks aren't coming in.

The NFL is, beyond sports, an economic machine. Networks shell out billions for TV rights because they make billions in return. The beer, truck and cellphone companies who spew out millions to advertise during the games may buy ads elsewhere, or perhaps may sit on their dough until the games start again.

Pro sports is big money. The Braves, Hawks and Falcons generate millions in revenue for metro Atlanta. The loss of the NHL's Thrashers to Canada, the city's second hockey team to relocate, leaves a big hole to fill in Philips Arena. A dark building with no fans buying drinks, food and tickets is a money loser. That will be the case in the Georgia Dome, and in Flowery Branch, if the NFL doesn't get back to work.

Yet there is some dispute over how much of an impact the loss of pro football will have. The players association claims each city could suffer a $140 million loss and dozens of jobs. Some training camp cities expect to lose $5 million or more.

Others dispute that, saying most people will spend that money on something else.

When times are tough, it's hard for anyone to part with dollars that don't go for necessities. But where will they spend it? Here or somewhere else? We don't know.

We do know, though, that many make their living from the game off the field, and not big money at that. The concession workers, field crews and stadium ushers all need games to scratch out a living. Even the independent vendors who sell peanuts, bottled water and souvenirs outside the Georgia Dome on gameday will take a hit. These aren't millionaires with agents, accountants and tax shelters, just working folks whose means of support might not be available this fall.

It's possible that if the impasse does end later in the summer, the league will adopt a shortened season with fewer games, and likely fewer preseason games. That would also mean a shorter preseason camp, which is not good news for Hall County businesses looking forward to summer visitors. What's more, a later camp would interfere with the start of the school year, which could cut down on attendance.

The NFL is a popular product, no doubt, but if the season isn't played, sports fans have plenty of alternatives. Football fans might fill seats at Grant Field for Georgia Tech games, or even for the second-year program at Georgia State. Baseball pennant races, auto racing, golf, tennis - they all keep going into the fall and won't face such interruption. The hardest NFL fans will continue to mourn, but most sports fans will move on to something else.

Yet the overall effect on our local economy, and the nation's, won't be positive. Like it or not, pro football is a moneymaker for our area, and getting the players back on the field is in everyone's best interest.

We hope the rich men who run the game can realize that and find a way to better share the billions of dollars due to come their way by getting a labor deal done.

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