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Bears Fri Feb 04 2011

Bears-Related Businesses Brace for NFL Lockout

bears tailgate.jpg
Tailgating at Soldier Field. Photo by Kristopher Anderson.

By Dan Waters

Twenty-eight years ago, there were no beers being passed around at 8 a.m. on fall Sundays. The wafting smell of brats and burgers was conspicuously absent from Lake Shore Drive. And diehard football fans were left twiddling their fingers as local economies suffered the brunt of the NFL's labor stoppage.

History, it seems, is bound to repeat itself.

The 2010 season that concludes this weekend is the NFL's last under its current collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. Unless they reach a new agreement, the league's owners are poised to lock out the players, creating a tidal wave effect that could have significant ramifications on more than the fans tailgating in the parking lot before kickoff.

Hub Arkush, publisher of the Riverwoods-based national publication Pro Football Weekly, said that while a lockout would certainly be a test of the NFL's resilience, the real effect would be seen at a local level.

"I think [the local economy is] the part that not enough people pay attention to," said Arkush, who estimated that there is a 75 percent to 90 percent chance of a lockout of some length. "It's not just the team and the players that get hurt. On the 10 game days -- you include the preseason games -- restaurants, bars and hotels would all lose revenue and you're talking about millions of dollars that would be pulled out of the economy."

Hundreds of millions, actually. The New Orleans Saints, for instance, pumped $402 million into the Louisiana economy in 2002, according to a University of New Orleans study.

Others argue that the money likely would be spent elsewhere. "[N]o statistically significant effect on taxable sales is found from the sudden absence of professional sports due to strikes and lockouts," argued one 2006 study (PDF) by economists at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. They pointed out that in a large metropolitan area such as Chicago or Los Angeles that amount of money would be a minimal part of the annual personal income, but Arkush said it's money that ends up coming out of someone's pocket.

"The venders, the stadium workers, the maintenance people [would be hit the hardest]," he said. "They're working for very low wage to begin with and they have a minimum number of dates and they can't recoup that money. It's always the little guys who get hurt."

Brian Shea, director for the Chicago-based global consulting and accounting firm Grant Thornton, described the impact of a lockout as a reverse trickle-down effect, where instead of people spending and putting money back into the city, affected individuals would tighten their wallets, thus negatively impacting the economy.

"Definitely the immediate impact is going to be the tax revenue to the city, the venders who work there, the people who supply the merchandise -- those sales all drop off," Shea said. "You could see some small companies who depend pretty heavily on NFL stadium revenue that could go out of business. Especially now that there's less discretionary money around, they rely more on stadium-related events such as football."

Jeff Hester, manager at Grace O'Malley's, the city's closest bar to Soldier Field, said that traffic coming in from Bears games is vital to the success of the bar.

"Basically what it does for our business on Sundays is quadruple it, if not quintuple it," Hester said. "It's just murderous."

A lockout, he said, "would be crushing for the business. These eight home games really make our quarter. It would take a big chunk out of our monthly nut, so to speak. It would be crushing to the whole economy."

One group of people that would almost certainly be spending less are Bears employees.

Josh Hasken, manager at the Bears Pro Shop located inside the stadium, estimated that on a typical game day, over 600 employees work at Soldier Field. Of the 80 to 90 people that work in the retail department, only 10 would be returning if a lockout did occur. And the jobs of those 10 are only safe if website sales are profitable, he said.

"None of the 70-some part-time hourly workers will have jobs, as all of those returning are full-time or salaried," Hasken said. "If there are zero games played next season and the league has announced that ahead of time, retail staff will not be able to collect unemployment, either."

Zachary Streich is one of these people who will find themselves unemployed if the owners and players can't agree on a new CBA. A retail associate at the Pro Shop, he said that while it would put many people in a difficult financial position, it would likely create a divide between the league and its fans that would be hard to overcome.

"Aside from the financial implications, the employees will have little sympathy for the wealthy players and management as they argue over money, therefore depriving the employees of their jobs," Streich said.

Other fans are concerned with the message a lockout would send to the average follower, as well.

"Fans are not very sympathetic to rich guys and richer guys fighting about money," said James Oldenburg, who goes to a handful of Bears games each year. "Combine that with the current economic and political environment we have now and it would mean a recipe for disaster for the NFL.

"The NFL has never been more popular and for them to not play football now would mean they would lose fans, period."

Sarah Luckett and Stephan Villatoro contributed to this report.

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