The numbers are ugly. When have we heard that about the NFL before?
Certainly not since its last labor stoppage, a players strike in 1987. Now, 10 weeks into the owners' lockout of the players, the NFL is seeing the early signs of cracks in fan loyalty.
"It currently has an impact. Fans want certainty," Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday at the end of the league's spring meetings in Indianapolis. "I don't think you can ever underestimate that fans are still going through difficult challenges just in the general economy. Those challenges continue to impact on their decisions and rightfully so. That is something they have to balance when they are making a decision to put down money for a season ticket or a club seat or whatever else.
"So we have to keep that in mind. I know the ownership has been reminded of that over the last couple of days and they don't need reminding because they are on the front lines."
The front lines mostly are in court these days.
Both sides have a date in 8th U.S. District Court on June 3 for hearings on the league's appeal to uphold the lockout. A decision probably won't come for several weeks, and while another set of mediation sessions is scheduled to start June 7, not much is expected from those discussions while the appeal is being considered.
Meanwhile, the fans are speaking.
"You see that in our various metrics that we have, whether they are ratings, or traffic on NFL.com," Goodell said. "We see that. And that is a reflection of the uncertainty and the frustration of our fans. And we all understand that. That is why we think it needs to get resolved. There are also financial consequences of that. That is, clearly, if we're not successful, that's clearly to come."
The owners' meetings included lengthy talks about the labor dispute, but no deadlines have been set — yet — for the opening of training camps, which usually happens in late July. That drop-dead date "obviously is coming," Goodell said, barring a collective bargaining agreement.
"We have made it very clear that (revenue loss) is occurring and will continue to accelerate," he added. "That will obviously impact on the ability of the ownership to make proposals that (the players) find attractive."
Owners were presented the full range of plans for opening weekend, from the first game on Thursday night at Lambeau Field to commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks on the first full Sunday of games. Those dates are not in jeopardy yet, but the longer the impasse, the more in danger they would become, particularly with the league's marketing partners, sponsors and advertisers who must commit dollars to those events well in advance.
"We're not at an Armageddon date," Eric Grubman, executive vice president of business operations for the NFL, told The Associated Press. "We're not staring that in the face this week."
Several teams already have begun to consider adjusting where they hold training camp. Fifteen teams trained last summer at complexes other than their in-season facilities, and some have deadlines as early as July 1 to decide whether to return to those locales or hold a truncated training camp at home.
"If it dragged on or there was a shorter camp, something like that might not be inconceivable," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. The Colts training camp is held about an hour from Indianapolis at Anderson University.
One day after canceling the rookie symposium scheduled for June 26 in Canton, Ohio — the first NFL event victimized by the lockout — Goodell reiterated the league's intent to play a full schedule this season. He recognized the need not only for some sort of training camps but also for a free agency signing period once a new CBA is reached.
"The uncertainty is something we have to consider in getting players ready to play, and we have talked about different concepts," he said.
One of those concepts would be expanding rosters to help teams keep rookies who might not have a chance to prove their value in training camp or the preseason.
A portion of these meetings was spent on adopting rules amendments for player safety. The league also announced a policy of "club accountability" for teams whose players repeatedly are fined for flagrant hits.
Punishments for the teams will be financial, but also could include further discipline by Goodell, including stripping of draft picks, for repeat offenders — something Goodell said he has "not contemplated yet."
That announcement brought a strong reaction from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
"Man, they're getting ridiculous," Woodley told SiriusXM NFL Radio. "Football is turning soft now. Too many fines. Too many penalties protecting the quarterback every single play. Defensive guys can't be defensive guys no more."
Indianapolis reporters, concerned about next February's Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium, asked several owners and Goodell whether the title game is in danger.
"You're going to have the Super Bowl here, I'm confident of that," Giants owner John Mara said.
"We're approaching 2011," Goodell added, "as we would any other season."