NFL's great divide

Charles Robinson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In any other season, a two-year cushion would seem plenty of time to worry about smoothing out collective bargaining issues in the NFL. But with the NHL on the verge of canceling its season, and some tricky issues on the pro football horizon, it might not be too early to push for progress.

With the NFL's current collective bargaining agreement, future labor problems really wouldn't roost until the 2007 season. But consternation has become significant enough that it was the first topic broached with commissioner Paul Tagliabue on Friday after delivering his annual "State of the League" address.

Revenue sharing continues to be the troubling divide between owners and players – specifically a boost in the salary cap from money produced by club seating and luxury skyboxes. NFPLA director Gene Upshaw hasn't been shy about making that money a target. While exact figures aren't known, it's believed that revenue could push as much as an extra $100 million a year into NFL salaries.

"We have a long way to go," Tagliabue said of the revenue-sharing proposals. "I know Gene said he was optimistic, but he's also a realist. I don't know if I'm optimistic or pessimistic, because I think we have a long way to go in getting a consensus that's going to get 24 votes (the number needed to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement).

"Everybody recognizes this has been a very solid system. But to be responsive to some of the proposals the players association has made to change the system – and we will be responsive in some ways – (and) to deal with the economic issues, including the sharing issues, we have a lot of consensus yet to build."

By far, the NFL has been the best of all pro sports in maintaining equilibrium with its talent. There hasn't been serious labor strife in more than two decades, a time when the league has grown into a juggernaut in the areas of self-promotion and growth.

But fear remains that the two sides will reach an impasse on revenue sharing. With the CBA set to expire in 2008, heading into the final year of the deal (the 2007 season) would be a disaster. In the current agreement, the salary cap runs through the 2006 season, meaning it would exist once 2007 started.

And lest anyone wonder what would happen if the NFL allowed the salary cap to be lifted – all they have to do is look at the current NHL mess.

What's the deal?

There apparently hasn't been any movement on the NFL's television contract talks with ESPN and ABC, with the two sides still talking financial figures. This remains a key item to watch, since there has been some disagreement over what the new contracts could do to the salary cap.

Some have speculated a new deal could cause a spike in salary-cap space for the 2006 season, pushing the overall team caps above $100 million. As we reported three months ago, the current cap is expected to settle at just over $85 million for the 2005 season.

Fine China

The NFL's exploration of foreign markets took an interesting leap last season when the league began promoting its product – mostly through the Web – in China. Now the NFL is negotiating the possibility of delivering a preseason game to the country within the next three seasons.

Front-office diversity?

Tagliabue said there are no designs on extending the league's Rooney Rule – which requires teams to interview minority candidates for vacant coaching positions – to franchise front offices.

"We're encouraging teams to have minority candidates in all their positions, not just the head-coach position," Tagliabue said. "But for us to sit in New York and point our finger to 32 teams and say we'll fine you if you don't do X or Y, it would not be a constructive step at this point.

"There is much greater diversity of positions. The head coach is a definable position. To take that, the dozens of other (front-office) positions, and us to try to micromanage it from New York with fines is not likely to be a positive thing right now."

They love L.A.

Slow progress continues over getting a site settled for the league's move back to Los Angeles, but it could be a few years before it's known whether that move will include an expansion team or a relocated franchise.

Tagliabue hedged on a permanent timetable for a move, which now looks like it could come in 2008 or 2009. He did say he wanted to get it done in the next five years and not let the return process "go another decade."