NFL will have to make peace with fans

The NFL and its players effectively completed a new labor pact Monday.

But even when the collective bargaining agreement is officially signed, this 4-month-old-plus debacle isn’t over quite yet. There is still another party the league and NFL Players Association must settle with: the fans.

No other US sport enjoys the same ardent following — all for a league that guarantees only about 48 hours a year of meaningful on-field action per team (i.e. 16 regular-season games).

What occupies those hardcores for the equivalent of the 363 other days? They talk about what’s going to happen next season.

College all-star games. The scouting combine. Free agency. Workout programs. The draft. Minicamps. All fan the flames of NFL passion during the offseason.

Several of those events didn’t happen this year because of the lockout. Excitement surrounding the others was mitigated as labor rhetoric took the spotlight. An NFL tradition — the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame preseason game in Canton, Ohio — became a casualty of the work stoppage.

Hearing the NFL and NFLPA squabble and whine about how to split multi-billions in revenue was a turnoff. After years of escalating television ratings, overall television draft viewership was down 7 percent from 2010, USA Today reported.

NFL merchandise sales have tanked. Internet traffic is down. So are ticket sales for most teams.

The NFL could perceive this as a mere hiccup. After all, football fans will return. It’s engrained in our culture. People want to watch games, play fantasy football, gamble, barbecue, drink and/or enjoy all the other trappings that the league brings.

Besides, what’s the alternative? There isn’t a viable one professionally, and college football isn’t shifting its main slate of games to Sunday as competition.

Even so, the league needs to make this right.

“We definitely should,” Cincinnati Bengals left tackle and NFLPA player representative Andrew Whitworth told me and co-host Zig Fracassi on Sirius XM NFL Radio. “You’ve seen some of these things happen (in other sports) and fans walk away like with major league baseball. You saw the hurt (during the 1994 players strike).”

There is a public trust in the NFL that the league proudly champions. Just like amends should be made to those 1,250 fans whose tickets were unusable in February at Super Bowl XLV, the NFL owes its fans some form of compensation.

What exactly? Here are some ideas:

1. Special autograph signings and pep rallies that allow fans to mingle with players and coaches. The same should be done with the home team at each preseason game.

2. Limited-time discounts on soda, food and merchandise.

3. Franchises that have moved training camps to team headquarters for 2011 should sponsor free round-trip bus rides for fans in those host cities to attend practice and receive player autographs.

4. Hold the 2012 NFL draft in Canton rather than New York City. This would allow Canton to recoup some of the millions of dollars lost when the NFL canceled the Hall of Fame Game between St. Louis and Chicago.

5. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith should travel to preseason games for all 32 teams to offer personal thanks.

6. Offer special free in-season tours of stadiums and team facilities.

7. NFL team websites should hold contests that would give fans the chance to become reporters, interview star players and then use the footage on the Internet.

8. Offer a set number of Super Bowl tickets that each team is allotted toward a lottery that would give the average fan the chance to attend.

“We need to say ‘thank you’ for supporting the game we all love,” Whitworth said.

If the NFL does that, it won’t take long for the league and its players to hear “you’re welcome” in return.