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LABOR BATTLES : NFL :: SAM FARMER

Reslicing the pie

Owners, players each want more. An 18-game season is possible. So is a lockout.

January 02, 2011|SAM FARMER

The 2010 NFL season began with a sign of solidarity. Before kickoff in the season-opening game, players from the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings stepped onto the Superdome turf and raised their index fingers to the sky -- a message that they stand as one in the ongoing labor dispute with the league.

It's a fight that threatens to shake the nation's most popular sports league to its foundation, especially because labor peace has been a hallmark of the modern NFL. There hasn't been a player work stoppage since 1987, and every other major U.S. professional sport has had one in the interim.

So what's this all about? Money, of course -- and that's one of the reasons this fight between millionaires and billionaires is unlikely to evoke sympathy from the NFL's loyal fan base.

"We are not where we need to be -- we need to get an agreement," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said recently. "We are not as close as I would like to be. We have a lot more work to be done. We have time to get it done, but it's going to need a very concerted effort and commitment to get that done."

The collective bargaining agreement between owners and players expires in March. If it runs out before a new deal is in place, there probably would be a lockout that would keep the players off the field, possibly into next season.

The current CBA was hammered out in 2006, in the 11th hour, and owners felt the 59% of gross revenues that it assured players was far too high. In 2008, at their first opportunity to do so, the owners unanimously voted to exercise the opt-out clause in that deal, which brings us to this point.

Basically, the owners are saying they need more money from the players, in the form of an 18% "credit" that would be taken off the top before gross revenue is calculated. Why? Because they believe the players should do more to offset the enormous cost of new stadiums, new media ventures and the like, which ultimately enrich everyone in the league.

The owners say that with that extra money, they can "grow the pie" with initiatives that could include more international opportunities and putting one or two teams back in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest television market. Their argument: Although the players would have a smaller percentage of that pie, that percentage would be worth more because the pie is that much bigger.

What the players are saying, in essence: Prove to us that the current system is broken. Owners are still making gobs of money. The league is as successful as it has ever been, and in fact set records with its last round of television deals.

The players ask why they should have to pay more than they already do to offset the cost of stadiums. After all, if an owner who bought a franchise for $100 million sells it for 10 times that amount, the players don't see a dime of that.

What's more, the owners already get a healthy slice off the top before the gross revenues are calculated. In 2009, for instance, the league's total revenue was $8.5 billion, and $1 billion was given to owners to help cover their costs. So the remaining $7.5 billion was considered gross revenue, of which $4.43 billion was allocated for player salaries.

The players want convincing proof that the owners need more money off the top to run the business -- money that would have increased the $1 billion in 2009 to $1.35 billion.

There are other issues too. The one that would matter most to fans: Team owners would like to expand the regular season to 18 games by turning two exhibition games into ones that count. Increasing the number of games is of great concern to many players, who say the 16-game season (plus playoffs) is punishing enough.

"Right now, under our current system, 18 games is a nonstarter," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said recently. "Issues like contact, off-season workouts, in-season workouts, where we are in the current season, adding two more games is something that's not sustainable. So we'll continue to talk to them about any proposal they want to put forward ... but given our current system, two extra games means a shorter career, it exposes us to injuries.

"That's not moving forward. Right now, that's moving backward."

So far, there are very few encouraging words coming from either side, although these types of deals usually aren't struck until the last possible moment.

From the look of things now, the "game of inches" still has miles to go.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

CURRENT CONTRACT EXPIRES

March 4.

WHAT THE LEAGUE WANTS

An 18-game regular season plus an 18% "credit" off the top of total revenue to help offset the cost of new stadiums, international games and other ventures.

WHAT THE PLAYERS WANT

They are happy with the current 59% slice of gross revenue and want proof that the owners need more money to keep the league healthy.

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