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Strike left void on Sunday afternoons

The NFL was replaced by reading and recreation. And fans struggled to deal with all the free time.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 1999

Thursday night hadn't been so bad. Atlanta's scheduled game at Kansas City, even to some Falcons and Chiefs fans, hadn't been missed that much.

But now it was Silent Sunday -- the first autumn Sunday in 63 years without NFL games -- and to many, the void was inescapable.

Yards and attics were cleaned. Books and magazines were read, cars and pets were washed. Golf and tennis and touch football were played. Errands were run and long walks were taken.

In Pittsburgh, a tailgate party promoted by a local radio station drew an estimated 5,000 fans to the parking lots at Three Rivers Stadium, where the New York Giants were scheduled to play the Steelers.

It was as though America was trying to convince itself that Sept. 26, 1982, was just another day.

It wasn't, of course. It was the first full day of the NFL players' 57-day strike. It would reduce the season from 16 games to nine, costing league cities thousands of dollars in taxes that would have been paid on tickets, food and concessions.

In each city where football was a Sunday staple, an estimated $2-million was lost on restaurant meals that weren't eaten, hotel and motel rooms that remained unoccupied and other businesses that rely heavily on football. Sports bars, usually packed in midafternoon, had few if any customers.

And beyond that, 15,000 people with football-related jobs -- ushers, security guards, vendors, grounds crews -- were out of work and unpaid. Charities that maintained stadium concessions as fund-raisers lost thousands of dollars.

Teams lost millions in TV revenues. Players lost hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in Sunday's unpaid salaries. None of them was going broke. Some, though, were opening NFL Players Association credit union accounts in case they'd need to borrow money before the strike ended.

But to NFL fans, who lost what or how much was not important. On this day they had lost their games and, more than a few fans said -- some not entirely jokingly -- they were losing their minds.

Newspaper stories and television programs featured sociologists discussing the evolution of the human animal to this point of dependency on sports and the attendant ramifications, and psychologists suggested how to deal with the withdrawal. The networks that normally carried NFL games showed two Canadian Football League games. The NFL Today, normally a half-hour show on CBS, ran four hours of interviews and a replay of Super Bowl XVI (at least it was a good game, San Francisco's 26-21 victory over Cincinnati). Another network carried the Baltimore Orioles' 3-2 victory over Milwaukee.

The next evening, when Brian Sipe and Ken Anderson should have been staging a shootout on Monday Night Football, fans wound up instead with the Outlaw Josie Wales.

"You know, this really feels strange," said Dan Allison, a fan who normally would be in front of his TV but instead was in Williams Park in St. Petersburg. "It's some kind of psychological displacement. I guess I'm conditioned to watching football on Sundays this time of year."

Was there a lasting impact on the fans? To some, perhaps psychologically. But the average attendance for the abbreviated 1982 season, and for 1983's full season, weren't very different from prestrike years.

-- Information from St. Petersburg Times files and New York Times was used in this report.

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