Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recurring Nightmares of Labor Issues: the NFL's Turn

In 2005, every hockey fan’s (and perhaps every sports fan’s) biggest nightmare came true: the season was cancelled.  We were officially going to be without hockey for more than a year.  Billions of dollars, and fans, were lost.  The NHL still hasn’t recovered, and now must begin negotiations on the next CBA with both sides willing to come to the table with open minds.  It was detrimental to the hockey world and the growth of the sport in the United States.  Evidently, the other leagues weren’t paying attention.

Five years after lawyer Bob Batterman represented the NHL in it’s failing CBA talks, he finds himself in a similar situation with another client: the National Football League.  The owners opted out of the final year of their Collective Bargaining Agreement, meaning that it will now expire in March 2011 after the conclusion of the 2010 football season, which will almost certainly be an uncapped year.

The issues at play in the NFL disagreements are similar to those the NHL faced: the owners believe the players are taking too high a portion of the revenues.  All other problems stem from this one basic disagreement.  Before the lockout, NHL clubs spent roughly 76% of their revenues paying player’s salaries.  They now spend 54% of revenues on player’s salary and a salary cap is in place to make sure that remains true.

It has become more complicated with the NFL negotiations.  NFL clubs currently spend about 60% of their revenues on player salaries, and the owners feel that is too much.  They feel that they take on huge risk and debt for their clubs, and they feel the costs are too high when they have to pay for new stadiums and facilities as well.  The player’s union, aware of how much revenue the league brings in, wants the organizations to open up their books so they can see where all of the money is going.  The owners are refusing to do that, saying that the documents they have already provided for the union are comprehensive enough.

After being deadlocked at this issue for months with no real counteroffer from the player’s union, the NFL owners began making other demands.  They proposed shortening the preseason by two games and lengthening the regular season by two games.  The players, don’t approve of this at all.  Not only does lengthening the regular season increase the risk for injury, but shortening the preseason makes it much more difficult for “underdog” players to show what they have an make the team.

The owners have also proposed that the players pay for their own flights and hotel rooms on road trips.  These two demands in particular are worsening the blood between the two sides and the talks continue to be at a standstill.  Until the owners open their books to the union, there is no place to start the talks up again.  Even if they can work out that issue, they are still eons apart on their two most recent proposals.

There is still plenty of time to come to a resolution, but as the NHL situation taught us, time can easily slip away.  There is more money and power at stake for the NFL than there was for the NHL, and with both sides unwilling to give on either front, it could spell the end for the 2011 NFL season. 

The stakes are also much higher for American society, where football is king.  Football is our sport.  We created it, and they don’t play it anywhere but North America.  The players are overwhelmingly American.  Imagine a sport’s year without the Super Bowl.  That is what is at risk.  It is driven by greed, it is driven by egos, and unless the owners and/or players’ union are willing to budge, we will lose another professional sports season.

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