NEW YORK (AP) — As one of the strangest NFL seasons — on and off the field — winds down, football fans can begin contemplating playoff matchups, followed by the Super Bowl, then the draft.
And then, perhaps, nothing.
Dark stadiums. Empty Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. No fantasy teams.
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires March 4. Team owners have gone from voicing optimism to basically clamming up about reaching a contract with the players union any time soon.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith emphasize the need for substantive negotiations now. Yet the two sides remain far apart on the major issues, particularly the players’ share of revenues, and a switch to an 18-game regular season.
“If both sides give a little, everyone will get a lot,” Goodell says, “especially the fans.”
Counters Smith, “The players believe this lockout is going to occur.”
They certainly do, say Tom Condon and Ben Dogra, two of the NFL’s top player agents, with a clientele that includes the Manning brothers, Drew Brees and Patrick Willis.
“I think the players are taking this very seriously,” says Condon, who has been through three other labor disputes: in 1974 as a rookie, in ‘82 as a part of the negotiations, and as an outside counsel to the players in 1987. “They know what is at stake here and all the reaction to preparing for it has been positive. We have encouraged them to talk to their player reps, who are their direct lines to the union, to discuss the issues, and to discuss the issues among themselves.”
Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, a 15-year veteran, says he has advised younger players on saving money. Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel, a 14-year veteran and, like Dawkins, a member of the union executive committee, adds that the NFLPA has asked every agent to discuss saving money with their clients.
“I think the players are more sophisticated and the issues are drawn pretty clearly. Basically what has occurred is that a CBA is in place the owners voted to accept, and certainly the players accepted, in 2006. And the owners had the option to opt out, they did in 2008, and they want to take back some of that money.”
That is a central issue.
NFL owners say they need a restructured deal because they can’t afford the revenue split of the CBA about to expire. NFL revenues are expected to be near $9 billion for 2010, with nearly 60 percent of designated revenues going to players. Owners claim huge debts from building stadiums and starting up the NFL Network and other ventures, making it impossible to be profitable.
According to the NFL, the average player salary rose about 35 percent from $1.4 million in 2005 — the last year of the old deal — to $1.9 million in 2009. Figures for this season aren’t comparable because there’s no salary cap.
The players insist the league and the game is healthy, pointing to huge payouts from the networks, impressive TV ratings, solid attendance, profitable marketing partnerships and overseas interest.
The players have asked the teams to open their books. Goodell responds that the players know where the league’s money is being spent “down to the penny.”
As the NFL prepares for the final 16 regular-season games of the season, intense negotiations aren’t on the immediate horizon. Although no deadlines are imminent, it’s difficult not to be concerned about 2011 — and beyond.
That doesn’t mean a gloom-and-doom scenario is upon us.
“The best way to get through it is make all parties have an understanding of the ramifications of a stoppage,” Dogra says. “You are very hopeful because there are intelligent people on both sides of the table, the sport is the most popular and very profitable for all parties involved.”
Also remember that the NFL has not missed games because of labor problems since 1987, when the players went on strike for the second time in five years.
“If both sides are equally committed and equally focused,” NFL executive vice president of labor and chief counsel Jeff Pash says, “then there’s no reason why we can’t get an agreement.”