- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

Under the sunny skies of Miami this Sunday, the NFL will crown the champion of Super Bowl XLIV, capping what has been a largely successful season for the league.

With the league’s TV ratings on the rise and its overall financial health seemingly weathering the recession quite well, on the surface, things are moving in the right direction for the NFL.

However, the long-term forecast for America’s most popular sports league isn’t quite as rosy, with potentially ugly labor problems clouding its future.

The NFL is heading into the last year of its current collective-bargaining agreement, and as part of the deal, the salary cap will be shelved for the 2010-11 season. The cap is what the league touts as key to keeping its competitive balance on the field and also what helps make the game so profitable for its 32 owners.

While for years the league has touted that the small-market Green Bay Packers can spend as much as the high-revenue Dallas Cowboys, this off-season, the big spenders likely will be able to lavish whatever money they want on free agents to stack the decks in their favor.

“We will go into an uncapped year in a month if we don’t have an agreement,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the NFL Network before the Pro Bowl. “It is looking virtually certain that we will get to that point.”

For this past season, teams could spend up to $128 million in salaries, and had to commit at least $112 million toward player payrolls. Next year, barring a settlement by March 5, teams can spend as much - or as little - as they want on players, which could lead to a big disparity in the level of play in the upcoming season.

Potentially more frustrating for football fans is that there seems to be little momentum toward cobbling together a new collective-bargaining agreement by March 2011, raising the possibility of a work stoppage that could to wipe out the 2011-12 season.

The NFL has had labor peace since 1987, when it reacted to a players’ strike by using replacement players for three games before the union conceded and settled the dispute. That scored a big victory for the owners, as the NFL Players Association had to decertify in the aftermath, having to reform in 1993 and then agreeing to accept a salary cap in 1994.

“There are conversations going on, and that is a positive step, but we are all frustrated that there is not more progress,” Mr. Goodell said of the current negotiations. “We all have to work harder to get there.”

Behind the scenes, however, the NFL appears to be preparing for a protracted fight, as one of its outside counsels, Bob Batterman, was the NHL’s negotiator during the lockout that in 2004-05 saw that league become the first to wipe out an entire season owing to a labor dispute.

The union is also ramping up its rhetoric, reportedly spending $220,000 in the second half of 2009 to lobby Congress and encourage it to investigate the league’s antitrust exemption. The NFLPA’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, also isn’t afraid to take some very public shots at the NFL and its owners.

“The simple fact is, they have engaged in a concerted course of conduct where anybody looking at it will see that they have done more to prepare themselves to not play football than to play football,” Mr. Smith told USA Today this week.

Mr. Smith also pointed out that in its latest television negotiations with CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN, the NFL owners made sure the networks will pay to televise the 2011-2012 season - whether a season actually takes place or not.

“When you negotiate a [television] contract to pay you even if the games aren’t played, you have spent time to prepare yourself for you ending football than to play football,” he told the paper.

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