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NFL lockout stifling fan interest?

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Is the NFL Lockout hurting fan interest in the 2011 NFL Draft? ESPN's Ross Tucker suggested that very notion during a segment on Pro Football Talk Live yesterday. If Tucker's on to something, it has to be a big concern for the NFL, as the draft is usually the offseason's premier event.

Given what I do running a big site like this, it's hard to notice. The draft is always a little more geared toward the hard core football fans, people like us who mull the Xs and Os of individual prospects taking their place alongside the current group of players. Our little community of Rams fan continues to grow at a good clip, but based on the growth curves we were seeing a year ago and the year before that (we've had our shingle out since 2006 at TST) it's not quite happening at the pace I expected.

In theory, the lockout shouldn't hurt the draft at all. All the hoopla at Radio City Music Hall will be happening regardless of the lockout or the state of the antitrust suit. However, as fans start to believe the possibility of the season being cancelled, it is a little harder to get excited about the draft, knowing that the future of your team will be more playing Xbox instead of playing football at the Ed Jones Dome doesn't exactly get you excited about the future.

Taking away the matinee of free agency, when fans feed on rumors and players changing teams, suppressed interest more than a little. That keeps the NFL in the news in the months leading up to the draft. Without that, NFL talk has either focused on either the lockout or the draft, mostly the later for fans. That creates a little draft fatigue for all but the most ardent draftniks.

Interest will pick up again (it already is) as the draft gets closer and the endless speculation about potential fourth-round safeties turns from the ephemeral to reality. But keep an eye on the ratings. The NFL was getting record ratings with every successive event last season, from the Rams' turd against the Seahawks in prime time to the Pro Bowl, the lamest event in pro sports since the steroid-free home run derby. If the ratings slip for the draft, the NFL has a problem on its hands. The silver lining might be a little extra motivation to get a deal done. But that's even more optimistic than the notion of a draft pick taking a team from pretender to contender in their first year.

Let me throw this back to you...does the lockout take away from the draft's usual luster?