Consider the following, almost certainly true things:
1. Many people (especially in Packer country and to a lesser extent, Bear country) will basically watch football no matter what. In Wisconsin, even the XFL did great.
2. There are open college stadiums everywhere on Sundays.
3. There are network TV stations that do not have NFL deals and would probably be more than happy to show football.
If I were an intrepid, locked out NFL player, I would create a small regional 7-7 flag football league. I would organize the teams as franchises with each participating player taking an equal share. I'd sign an open-ended TV deal with ABC or a bigger cable channel, maybe with a 3 week guaranty with a renewable 1-week option after that. Teams would split the gate and concessions. GB could play in Camp Randall or Miller Park. Chicago could play at Northwestern or Illinois. Detroit could play in Ann Arbor. I'd call it the Lockout Cup.
I would attempt to organize it in tournament form along the lines of the world cup, first with round robin group play followed by a knockout round. And if the labor dispute happened to settle in the meantime I'd preserve the Lockout Cup season in tact in case it ever happens again. This would feed ESPN speculation when a lockout was pending about "the return of the lockout cup" complete with updates about where each franchise stands.
Flag Football has low overhead. It has a lower injury risk than does real football. ESPN would take care of most of their marketing for them (as would Twitter and Facebook), and the NFL has already bestowed the players with valuable brand names. Remember when the Cleveland Indians sold out a spontaneous game in Miller Park? You don't think 40,000 would show up to see the Packers play the Bears?
I suspect that people would show up and tune in. They would get to see their favorite NFL-ers with no helmets, close up, and probably at lower prices. Some would do so just to show solidarity with the players. I'd instruct all participants to be as friendly as possible and to sign autographs as much as possible.
Would big names participate? I believe they would given the proper circumstances, and this idea would not require all of them, just enough of them. This would not just be a way to keep making money, it would also serve several other important functions, namely:
1. Showing the owners that the players can, in fact, survive without them.
2. Showing any anti-trust court that cares that a competitor to the NFL could theoretically exist if it were allowed to.
3. Keeping their skills sharp and their brands current.
4. Swinging leverage completely to the players' side, possibly forever.
5. Fox/CBS/NBC would be apoplectic at paying the owners lockout insurance while ABS is showing live real games.
Is this possible? Probably not. Owners are owners for a reason. But it would only take a few intrepid players and agents to get the ball rolling. Booking stadiums is, in the grand scheme of things, not that hard. Arranging travel is not that hard. Getting a TV network to cover football is not that hard. Creating media buzz via the internet when many of players already have thousands upon thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers is not that hard. Overhead is low.
The only thing this takes is hard work.
Owners have have used replacement players before. Why shouldn't the players try out a replacement organization?
3 minutes ago