NFL Armageddon 2011— One week closer to the inevitable NFL lockout
The countdown clock continues towards what now seems inevitable – NFL Armageddon 2011, a $7 billion dollar business shutting down on March 5, 2011. The past week was filled with more rhetoric from both sides (mostly the owners) and the National Football League Players Association putting the last pieces in place if the NFLPA wants to blow itself up. All in all, a great week (not) in terms of successfully negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the two sides.
The highlight from this past week from NFL owners had a record three NFL owners speaking out on the issue of whether or not there will be a new CBA before the March 5 date when the current CBA expires.
Emailing a group of season holders Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver suggested have no fears – a labor deal is near.
“Most of you are aware that the agreement that the NFL has with the players’ union, called the CBA, will expire in March,” Weaver says in a “special message” dated November 17. “In any such agreement, there are many issues to be discussed, but our negotiations are professional, not personal. We have immense respect for our players and all who play and have played this game. No one believes that it is in their interest — the union, the teams, the players, the former players, the fans — for disagreements on these issues to damage the game that all of us love and to which you have given your whole-hearted support and enthusiasm.
“There is no question that an agreement will be reached,” Weaver says. “However, the more time that goes by before that happens, the more that all of us will lose – players, clubs and fans. We remain committed to doing all that we can do to reach agreement as soon as we can on a deal that is fair to players, fans and all 32 clubs and provides for the growth and health of the game of football.”
Weaver is in an interesting position. The Jaguars have more ticket selling issues than the average NFL franchise. The Jags play their home games at EverBank Field which can seat as many as 76,867. However, the organization believed less was more and installed a series of tarps to reduce the seating capacity for Jaguars games. The covers were placed to block out seven sections in the upper north endzone and four in each upper deck section, located on the corners of each. This puts 9,703 seats out of service, leaving the stadium with 67,164 seats for the regular season. The Jags still have their hands full in selling the 67,164 tickets and while not talked about when it comes to relocation Weaver has to sell optimism when it comes to the Jags and the NFL’s immediate future.
At least Weaver, regardless of how he was trying to spin the current state of NFL labor talks, tried to communicate with his franchises largest stakeholders – his teams’ season ticket holder base. Weaver highlighted four main issues between the two sides:
1. “The great appeal of the NFL is based on the competition among 32 franchises, each of which must be strong and able to win.”
2. “To insure [sic] this competition and the safety of our players, the NFL has created the best drug and conduct policies in sports, and has focused on player safety improvements, recognition of our retired veterans and on continuing to create value for our fans.”
3. “To enhance the value for our fans, we made the proposal that the regular season be increased to 18 games.”
4. “To address inequities that have evolved under the current system, such as paying untested rookies in a manner that makes no sense, we have proposed shifting money toward proven veterans and retired players.”
Was Weaver off base in any of the suggestions? No, he was not but he also was not in a position to move the two sides forward and his comments did not move the two sides further apart.
Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross, one of the newer NFL owners, suggested he too believed an NFL labor deal was a lot closer to reality then common sense seems to dictate.
Appearing at a sports conference in New York City, Ross did his best to calm the growing talk of labor armageddon – steps away from the NFL’s Manhattan offices.
“All owners want to see the labor negotiations be concluded and we don’t have to worry about missing a game next year,” Ross said. “Right now, it’s out of everybody’s hands. I don’t know what’s going on personally. We’re briefed, but there are some negotiations. I don’t think it’s fast enough, hopefully they’ll be concluded satisfactorily for both sides.”
Are Ross’ comments a surprise to anyone? Of course not and no they should not be a surprise. Does anyone really believe any NFL owner is going to suggest a labor deal is not near? The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month the league was looking at a near billion dollar loss in league revenues even IF a new labor accord was reached by August, saving the 2011 season but allowing for tremendous labor uncertainty.
Weaver and Ross are NFL owners but they do not (with all due respect) have the statue Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II has. The Rooney’s are one of the NFL’s founding families – when a Rooney talks NFL labor – it is well worth listening and paying attention.
"I think the owners are all committed to getting a deal done that works for the game and something that is healthy economically for the players and owners," Rooney told FoxSports.com, a member of the NFL management council executive committee for labor affairs. "I'm not going to predict any real time frame to it because I do think we have a long way to go, but I certainly think we'll get there. I hope we get there before we get to any type of a lockout. That remains to be seen."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been very optimistic whenever he has been asked about the possibility of an NFL lockout. He has suggested like Weaver and Ross that he believes labor peace is a lot closer than labor armageddon. It remains to be seen if Rooney or Kraft are right but as long as the two sides are not negotiating (and they will not be holding a joint meeting until December) the side that is closer to labor armageddon is a lot closer.
The NFLPA should be given credit for offering the owners a reasonable reaction to the owners proposed 18 game schedule (two more games). According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the union's proposal asks for reduced voluntary offseason workouts, among other things, if an 18-game season is to occur.
The proposal asks for voluntary offseason workouts to be reduced from 14 weeks to five weeks or 20 days. Considering the recent studies on concussions and NFL players, safety is a big concern and the union is asking for reduced contact between players.
During the season, the union wants to implement two bye weeks for each team and rosters to expand from 53 to 56 or 57. It also wants increased prorated salaries for players under contract and a reduction in the number of games players need to become vested to qualify for post-career health care and pension benefits.
“We all know what the league has done in taking steps toward a lockout, and our counterproposal to the 18-game schedule was another way for us to be as responsive as possible, and to negotiate in good faith,” NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah told Yahoo Sports. “Our counterproposal is not primarily based on the financial construction of what 18 games would look like, but rather on the dangers of the game, and minimizing the impact that two extra games per season would have on players.”
The Green Bay Packers are publicly owned and operated business; the other 31 NFL teams are privately held and operated businesses. While the NFLPA is loathe to even consider reducing the 60 percent in football generated revenue football players are currently guaranteed as part of the CBA that is in place. As Atallah told Yahoo Sports, if NFL owners are crying poor maybe it is in the best interest of NFL owners to open up their books to the NFLPA and prove indeed NFL owners are losing money.
“You can’t ask players to play extra games without providing injury data or other information that would help to reduce the wear and tear on the players,” Atallah said. “The owners can’t view players as their automobiles – if they break down, you can just replace them with somebody else. That’s not how we approach the negotiations, and I guess you’d have to ask the NFL why their initial proposal only included one extra roster spot.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith spent a good part of last week visiting the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were the last of the 32 NFL team player groups to give Smith and Atallah the mandate to decertify the NFLPA if they believed it was in the best interests of the union to blow itself up.
“Historically, players gain free agency through decertification,” Atallah said. “When the NFL and the owners have taken aggressive action against the players, or they have taken action to restrict employee rights, the union and the players have decertified to fight for those rights in the courts. This would be no different. If the players decide to renounce their interest in being part of the NFLPA, the league can be subject to antitrust violations. Their position on a lockout is one of the things that could be challenged in court.”
The Associated Press reported the NFLPA made an interesting decision which optically may not have been in their best interests of winning the public battle for support. The NFL makes no secret what their lobbyist Jeff Miller does in Washington; he presses the flesh and talks to members of congress on behalf of the NFL. According to AP the NFLPA has and is in the process of drafting letters to members of congress on behalf of the players.
"It's obvious that they clearly believe that Congress' involvement is very necessary," NFLPA public policy counsel Joe Briggs told the AP. "The real question will be whether a populist wave of the last election will make members of Congress ready to stop the NFL" from imposing a lockout.
"We have a very different approach to this than the players association has," NFL talking head Miller countered with. "But at the same time, if they're spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill trying to encourage Congress to engage in our collective bargaining negotiations, we can't just abdicate the playing field. We have a responsibility, too, to talk to members of Congress and their staff and educate them about the status of the negotiations."
Does anyone really expect the Congress, especially a new Congress with the 2012 Presidential election less than two years away, to focus anytime on whether or not there is an NFL lockout – not if anyone wants to see the light of day in the next election.
Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research was even more pointed in his comments in the AP report:
"The more members of Congress join in, that gives members of the public the impression that maybe the owners aren't doing something right, this is a little too greedy," Ross said.
With Thanksgiving making this a very short week – do not expect anything to get done this week – as the days and weeks get closer and closer to March 5, 2011.
For SportsBusinessNews.com this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this report: ProFootballTalk.com, ESPN, AP and FoxSports.com