- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

National Football League owners and players remain locked in a dispute over the terms of a contract that would extend their highly successful collective bargaining agreement. Indeed, owners and players would readily admit that it has been the sport’s labor peace since the late 1980s that has helped it immensely in leapfrogging baseball in the hearts, minds and wallets of America’s sports fans.

Late Sunday night, negotiators agreed for the second time to postpone for three days the opening of the NFL’s annual free-agent market, which was to have begun yesterday morning. The last-minute postponement also delayed the painful decisions that the Washington Redskins and other teams would have to make to comply with the 2006 salary cap, which is set at $94.5 million per team.

One incentive for the players to reach an agreement is the virtual certainty that a contract extension would lift the 2006 salary cap by as much as $13 million. On the other hand, in 2007, the final year of the current contract, there would be no salary cap; and Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw has repeatedly insisted that the salary cap will never return if it is allowed to expire.

How big is the pile of money? Over the next six years, the 32 teams in the NFL will share an average of more than $3.7 billion per year from television-rights fees. Moreover, the NFL just set another attendance record, playing before 17.2 million fans who exceeded 90 percent of the stadiums’ capacities. Much of the ticket revenue is shared among the teams, too. These riches have made the players wealthy as well, with the salary cap increasing from $41.5 million in 1997 to at least $94.5 million in 2006. Given the recently negotiated TV contracts, and the NFL’s potentially lucrative decision to begin broadcasting prime-time games Thursdays and Saturdays on its own NFL Network, the players’ fortunes are guaranteed to soar further.

When the owners and players next meet, both sides should remember the downside of labor strife: Disagreements threaten to kill the golden goose that has produced the golden eggs of sports teleivision.

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