NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was right when he said fans “don’t care about the details” of contract negotiations.
But he better keep his fingers crossed that doesn’t change anytime soon. This is one of those arguments where the more you know, the less you like everyone involved. So let’s get the blame game started with a few details:
Owners and players are fighting over how to divvy up roughly $9 billion in revenues. The average franchise is valued at just over $1 billion and the average player salary is just under $2 million. Yet they’re still so far apart on a new deal that Thursday’s bargaining session ended after just two hours without a word on when it might resume.
So why not call off the rest of the scheduled sessions and just go straight to a lockout? That way, fans can focus on the one question they do care about: Who’s really greedier, the millionaires or billionaires?
The short answer is you can’t go wrong picking either side.
It’s always risky trying to fix the main obstacle to an agreement until one is signed. But the early deal-breaker appears to be the owners’ demand to take $2 billion from the pot — instead of the $1 billion set out in the last deal — even before discussions start on how to split the rest of the economic pie.
The owners are smart enough not to plead poverty, especially because they’ve just pulled in record TV ratings and an even bigger stockpile of goodwill following one of the most entertaining seasons ever. So they’re arguing they need the extra billion or so to set up a rainy-day superfund to cover the rising costs of everything, from buying and improving stadiums to supplying chalk for locker-room bulletin boards.
“We have a healthy business. We are not losing money. We have never said that,” Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president of business operations, told reporters during a briefing session last month at league headquarters.
“We do not have a healthy business model,” he added. “We don’t want to be the home-building industry of 2005. We don’t want to be the ‘dot-com’ industry of 1999.”
That sounds good, especially after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn’t afford enough nuts and bolts to make sure everybody who bought a ticket to last week’s Super Bowl actually had a working seat.
The players are essentially arguing for the status quo, and with flawless logic. The league has never been more popular, and everyone is already making money hand over fist. But in case logic doesn’t prevail, the players association has already hedged its bets by filing several legal challenges and laying the groundwork to unveil the nuclear option — decertifying the union and mounting an antitrust lawsuit.
There’s nothing wrong with making preparations, of course. The owners have already established a slush fund and have access to enough in TV rights fees to black out an entire season and more. What’s insulting, on the other hand, are the pleas for public sympathy from both sides, who have cast themselves as almost-regular Joes.
The league has hired several of the high-priced management lawyers behind the NHL’s lost season. So far, their contribution is to try to convince us that NFL owners are just like small-business owners everywhere, struggling just to keep the doors open week to week.
The union has countered with a “Let Us Play!” campaign, as though they were strictly about love of the game and not money. Several players used their podiums at the Super Bowl to note that a lockout would mean they’d have to go out and get health insurance on their own.
It would be tempting, especially in these uncertain times, to believe their problems and concerns are similar to ours. But given the multiples involved, they’re not even close.
When he owned the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell defined the NFL’s success this way: “We’re ... Republicans who vote socialist.” What he meant is that by sharing the biggest revenue sources the league ensured the competitiveness and viability of every franchise. That parity, along with labor peace, enabled the NFL to kick every other pro sport in North America to the side of the road in a breakneck dash to prosperity.
If after all that time, owners and players haven’t figured out the concept of giving a little to get a lot, here’s hoping they shut down the business for a long time. Because by then, fans will know all the details and care less than ever about them.