The Clock Is Ticking

After a glimmer of hope emerged yesterday that the NFL and its players union could get something hammered out before free agency began, the failure of those talks have some looking to the final countdown to the league's collective bargaining agreement.

The intracacies of the inner workings of the NFL haven't come to the forefront in recent years as it has in the other three major sports. Baseball always seems to have labor unrest, although the players union hasn't lost a dispute with management in any of the last several owner/union dust-ups. The NBA narrowly averted its own work stoppage a year ago -- primarily because it realized the damage that was done to the National Hockey League when it wiped out an entire season.

But Tuesday's ray of hope that emerged when it was announced that 11th-hour meetings between the league and NFL Players Association leadership was dashed within hours as talks broke off abruptly with no new discussions scheduled. The result of that one-day effort to get a new collective bargaining agreement put in place before the start of free agency could have far-reaching effects -- beginning as early as tommorrow night at midnight Eastern time.

As talks between the league and the NFLPA appeared to be moving in the right direction, there was legitimate discussion about postponing the start of free agency from March 3 to as late as April 1 in order to get a new CBA hammered out and continue the NFL's two decades of labor peace. In one fell swoop, that has all changed.

In most labor negotiations, someone holds what is called "the hammer." In baseball's case, it has always been the players union. Whenever there has been a strike or threat of a strike, the owners have eventually caved and the players have wound up with what they sought. In the NHL, where the owners could make a legitimate case that nearly half the league was losing money due to escalating salaries, the owners had the hammer and used it. In the NFL, an argument can be made for both sides, but it is clear that, up until now, the owners have held the hammer.

The last time the NFL was on strike was in 1987. The players staged an in-season walkout to try to get leverage on the owners, but they refused to break -- ushering in the sad era of "scab football." Unfortunately for Vikings fans, Mike Lynn never believed that it would actually come to hiring replacement players, so by the time it was clear to him that it was going to happen, most of the top available scab talent was gone. The result was that the Vikings had the worst scab team in the league -- led by QB Tony Adams, who bore a strong resemblence to the gray-haired Joe Cocker wannabe contestant on this season's "American Idol."

The fans turned on the NFL at that time in a big way. While the players wore the uniforms of the 28 teams of the day, the product clearly wasn't National Football League material. After three weeks, players began to break ranks and started returning to their teams. The players union lost all its leverage and the owners got the hammer. They haven't given it up in the 20 years that have followed.

The biggest sticking point for the union this time around is getting a fair share of the pie. While the players pool of money is more than 50 percent of league revenue, it doesn't include the ancillary income that owners can generate through signage, luxury suites and in-house marketing of the football product. Considering that the Colts recently sold naming rights to their new stadium for $120 million and the driving force behind building new stadiums has been the inclusion of additional luxury suites, this portion of the income ratio is substantial and something the players union believes they have a right to.

There are two distinct schools of thought on this. One sees the players as the product and, in that case, should be compensated as such. But others see the success of the NFL being reflected in the salary cap, which has ballooned all the way to $95 million this year (without an agreement). A good case can be made for both sides. If the league has found a loophole to hide revenues from being accessed by the players, you don't have true revenue sharing. But, on the flip side, when you have owners like Zygi Wilf spending $600 million on a franchise that sold in 1998 for $225 million and other franchises like the Redskins would cost more than $1 billion to purchase, those owners deserve a return on their investment.

While those arguments fall into the area of legalese, the reality sits somewhere in the middle. For whatever reason, the final year of the CBA was uncapped purposely. A new TV deal was struck midstream, as was a three-year extension of the CBA in 2002. The current deal runs through the 2007 season, but without a new deal in place by one year from today, the salary cap will go away in 2007.

The reason fans should be concerned about this is that, when the CBA was first reached, the NFL was popular, but not nearly as big a juggernaut as it is today. The thought of having five networks covering regular-season games (FOX, CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network) wasn't even a consideration. And the proliferation of the use of player names and team logos has resulted in mass changes in the lucrative video game industry and threats from the NFLPA to deny the use of player names in league-sanctioned fantasy football websites. The money the players thought they were sharing continues to blossom, and NFLPA head Gene Upshaw was pretty up front when he stated Tuesday that if the salary cap goes away, the players will fight hard to make sure it never comes back -- potentially creating the competitive imbalance we see in baseball.

While the NFL stands alone in the area of non-guaranteed money (something that may have to change somewhat in the next CBA) in its player contracts, both the NBA and NHL have used the NFL's salary cap as a blueprint to design their own revenue sharing policy. If the NFL's cap goes away, it will likely be the ruin of the competitive balance the league has been able to achieve.

In the short-term, it remains business as usual...sort of. Without a collective bargaining deal in place, it will be almost impossible for teams that are already in cap trouble for 2006 like the Raiders, Jets and Chiefs to actively seek out free agents. For others like the Vikings, Packers and Browns that have $20-plus million in available money, it won't be nearly as bad. In fact, the nervousness of owners to throw out big money for the 2007 contract season could drive free agent prices temporarily down -- which could be a boon for the Vikings as free agent brokers with money to spend.

In the end, both sides need to get together. The NFL's pie has enough servings to make everyone happy. It has become America's Game for just that reason. It's not too late to get something done to assure labor peace for the next five years or more, but the two sides need to stop posturing and get down to the hard business of making a new deal work for both sides. With all the additional money coming in and what is at stake, that should be Priority One. If they were close enough to discuss delaying free agency, there obviously aren't that many deal-breaker issues in the way of getting a new deal done.

The clock has started ticking on the league and the NFLPA. It's up to them. At this point, nobody has a gun to the head of the other. The NFL is enjoying its best financial success in its history. The only thing that can stop it is greed and, unless something changes, that is all that will prevent the game from going forward as it has for the last 12 years -- without interruption and with unprecedented financial success.

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