Real Staying Power

A wild week of negotiating showed that NFL owners and players might not ever agree on some issues, but they will survive--and thrive
March 13, 2006

Once upon a timethere was a horrible plague threatening the National Football League. It wascalled free agency, and owners scratched and clawed with the NFL PlayersAssociation to keep this pox from ruining their beloved game, even going tofederal court in 1992 to inoculate themselves. "What we'll end up having isno middle class," the late, well-respected New York Giants general managerGeorge Young said of free agency. "We'll have 'haves' and 'have-nots.'"But in 1993 the NFL was finally forced to accept free agency and reached alandmark agreement with the NFLPA that made it available to players with fouryears in the league.

Since thencompetitive balance--and the league--has flourished. Nineteen of the NFL's 32teams have made the Super Bowl in the past 13 years. The Packers went twice, inpart because they made the greatest signing in the free-agent era--Hall of Famedefensive end Reggie White, who chose Green Bay (pop. 101,000) over big-marketSan Francisco, Washington and Dallas. Average attendance in the league is up5,800 per game since 1992. And check out the Harris polls that asked 1,900Americans in 1993 and 2005 which sport was their favorite. In '93 pro footballwas first with 24% and baseball second with 18%. In 2005 football was firstwith 33% and baseball second with 14%.

My point: Fansdon't give two flips if owners and players can't find some way to divide theirbillions and extend their current labor deal this week. Ditto on whether thesalary cap goes away. Fans absolutely love pro football and don't want to bebothered with the details.

After a week ofnegotiations, two extensions of the deadline for a new deal--the latestdrop-dead date was Thursday--and a six-day delay in the start of thefree-agency period, commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL's 32 owners were tomeet in Dallas on Tuesday to consider the players' latest proposal. (It calledfor the players to be guaranteed 59.5% of league revenue in salary andincreased revenue sharing among teams.) Absent a new deal, teams will have asalary cap of $94.5 million this season, about $10 to $15 million less than thenew deal would call for. What's more, failed negotiations will push the leaguecloser to playing without a salary cap in 2007, the final year of the currentdeal. Beyond that? The future would be murky, but union head Gene Upshaw saysit probably wouldn't include a salary cap.

But that doesn'tmean the sky is falling. Just as the fear that free agency would ruin the sportproved unfounded, so too is the idea that an NFL without a salary cap would beless competitive. Yes, the Redskins and their ATM of a stadium, FedExField--which has boosted owner Daniel Snyder's gross revenues to more than $300million per year--would have an advantage. But there are enough safeguards toensure that a George Steinbrenner couldn't take over the NFL by buying up anywarm-blooded superstar.

Why? If theRedskins needed a quarterback, they'd still have to develop one (like thelesser-revenue teams) or pay a ransom for one. And few big-name QBs reach thefree market because most are signed to long-term deals. Plus, the disparitybetween the NFL's rich and less-rich isn't nearly what it is in, say, baseball.As one NFL owner said last week, "No matter what happens with this dispute,I don't think Dan Snyder can become Steinbrenner. The low-money teams willstill have too much money for them to let all of their best players go."Consider this: Without further revenue sharing, NFL teams will still pool 80%of all football revenue through 2007. This is a game on the edge of a cliff?Nonsense.

Still, thedispute has shown some cracks within ownership--primarily between big-marketowners and their small-market brethren--that won't be patched over. Dallasowner Jerry Jones, for one, thinks it's absurd that he should share money fromthe naming rights for his new stadium, to open in 2009, with Cincinnati's MikeBrown, who got zilch for his naming rights because he dubbed it Paul BrownStadium, after his dad, the club's founder.

There is alsowidespread distrust of Snyder, even among high-revenue owners, because theydon't think he worked his way up the NFL ladder. Snyder bought the Redskins andhis stadium in 1999 and quickly turned both into cash cows. Contrast that toNew England's Bob Kraft, who joined the league in 1994, when the Patriotsranked last among 28 teams in revenue; he built Gillette Stadium with mostlyprivate money and never has warmed to being placed in Snyder's clique amongowners.

Whatever happenswith these negotiations, two things are certain: The NFL will be America'sbiggest league for a long time ... and the men who rule the game won't see eyeto eye on very much. But that won't matter. America is always going to be readyfor some football.

"The agent of the firm that spent $16 million forthe horse said, 'He'd better be good.'" --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22


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