Let the (Labor) Games Begin

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Don't expect a resolution any time soon.

Don't expect a resolution any time soon.

By Ralph Vacchiano

It was another thrilling finish in what has become a string of remarkable Super Bowls. Three of the last four have been decided on the final drive. There hasn’t been a real Super blowout in eight years.

There were over 100,000 people packed into Cowboys Stadium. There were another 162 million watching at least part of it across the country. It was the most watched televised event in the history of American television.

And despite all that, Super Bowl XLV could be the last taste of professional football the hungry public gets for quite a while.

Now that the confetti has been cleared and the Lombardi Trophy has been returned to Green Bay, the specter of a lockout is casting a shadow over whatever comes next. Almost everyone around the NFL believes that, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires on March 4, NFL owners will vote to lock out the players.

That means, with the lone exception of the NFL Draft on April 28-30, there will be no football — no workouts, no mini-camps, no free agent signings and no games — until a new CBA is signed.

What are the chances of that? How far apart are the sides? How long could a lockout last? And what’s causing the big divide? The details can be as confusing as they are mind-numbing to fans who want nothing more than to watch their favorite teams play. But until that happens, here’s a guide to the NFL’s current labor situation, what’s coming next, and what’s at stake:

THE SIDES

• Billionaire owners who preside over an industry that is at the height of its popularity and generates an estimated $8 billion. There are 32 of them, seemingly united in the feeling that the existing labor agreement is out of date and too costly. Their leader is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

• Millionaire players (and some worth much less) who have a history of fracturing under pressure from owners. Their new boss, NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith, is a well-connected lawyer who has vowed “war” on the owners and swears the players will remain united, no matter how long they’re kept off the field.

THE BIG ISSUES

• Money is the big one, no matter what else is mentioned. The owners want to roll back the players’ share of the revenue pie, which currently stands at 59.8 percent. The players claim that’s not a percentage of all revenue anyway and are opposed to what they believe is essentially an 18 percent pay cut across the board.

• The 18-game season might be the biggest bargaining chip on the table. NFL owners want two extra games (and two fewer preseason games) because it’s an easy way to add revenue. The players insist they want no part of two extra regular-season games, though they often qualify that by saying it’s negotiable if their pay is increased.

• A rookie salary cap of some form seems to be one issue that players and owners favor. Rookie salaries have gotten out of control, and veteran players would like to see more of that money go to them. Agents aren’t thrilled with this idea, though, since rookie contracts are the easiest pay days they have.

• Retired player benefits are on the table, though this seems to be a bigger issue among retired players. Players want more money to be diverted to future health costs and helping out players later in life. The owners seem fine with that but would prefer more of that come out of the current players’ slice of the pie.

THE TIMETABLE

Most NFL insiders seem certain a lockout is coming on March 4 even though the NFL and NFLPA finally sat down for their first formal negotiating session in two months at the Super Bowl and have committed to two more negotiating sessions in the very near future. Figure on several more happening before February is over, continuing right up until the final hours.

The problem is that, even though Goodell swears there’s a sense of urgency to strike a deal, there’s no reason for either side to have a sense of urgency. NFL owners will take an immediate financial hit even if there’s a work stoppage in March, but they’ve built a strong enough financial reserve that they won’t really feel any pinch until the games would have started in August. For the players, they might not get antsy until they start missing game checks in September.

The most optimistic league insiders believe that a settlement in July is the best-case scenario. Many think a lockout could force the regular season to be delayed.

WHAT TO EXPECT

For the next few months, expect nothing but rhetoric. The only item, other than meetings, on the NFL calendar is the draft. Without a CBA, there will be no free agency, meaning 500 potential free agents are in limbo. Contracts can’t be signed. Players won’t be allowed to work out at team facilities. The league will be virtually at a standstill.

Many players have already discussed plans to organize team workouts, and some agents may be gathering players for unofficial camps, too. That’s all they can do, though, while the league is shut down.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There will be football in 2011. Almost everyone agrees with that. The belief — the hope, perhaps — is that the players and owners understand that even with a flawed agreement they’re all getting richer. With an $8 billion pie still growing and waiting to be split, none of them are dumb enough to skip an entire season. They’re also very mindful of alienating their much-abused fans.

How it’s settled is anyone’s guess. An 18-game season seems likely. So does some sort of a roll back in the players’ percentage of the revenue, though the owners may need to throw more of their revenue into the shared pot. Players will likely still have free agency in it’s old form, starting at four years. The general free agency rules — complete with “franchise” tags — seem unlikely to change much at all.

Then, when it’s settled, expect everything to happen quickly. You might see a two-week sprint to get all the free agents signed, followed by an abbreviated training camp and a quick and condensed start to the season.

There will be football, though, at some point. That’s what everyone believes. There just may be a lot of screaming and yelling before the next ball is actually kicked off.

 

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