June 21, 2011
On the 102nd day of the lockout — by far the longest work stoppage in NFL history — 32 owners and other NFL movers and shakers convene in Chicago for what may be the most important series of meetings since the last collective bargaining agreement was ratified in March of 2006. Here's a brief guide on what to expect out of these meetings; we'll of course have a wrap-up as soon as there's substantive news.
Points of discussion
The last round of meetings have been confidential, so one of the primary purposes of this meeting Tuesday among the owners is for the group that participated in those negotiations to inform the other owners of where the NFLPA has bent and where it will likely not. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be the pointman.
It's as much about the owners getting on the same page.
"There's a lot on the line," one NFL owner told Yahoo's Jason Cole last Friday. "I don't envy Roger's position because he has to make a lot of people happy. I think there's enough common sense out there that we'll get something done, but there are also some [owners] who still want to fight."
And that's the primary issue to be resolved at this meeting. Will there be a cabal of owners, composed of at least nine, that will band together and form enough of an upset minority to upend the final push toward a new CBA? It takes 24 votes on the owners' side to ratify a new deal, and the sense is that while the number of rogue owners is below the line, Goodell doesn't want to go back into talks with the NFLPA without everyone on the same page — or, at the very least, with the fringe owners in their own partition. There's still a tiny group of owners probably willing to sacrifice a season to break the former union if it went that way, but as the realities come closer, finances play a larger part.
Right now, preseason money is key.
If you want to know why Goodell won't even acknowledge the possibility of a four-game preseason with reduced ticket prices, it's because in the preseason, player costs are less, while revenues stay basically the same. You'll hear different "drop-dead dates" by which an agreement would have to be made and a full preseason played, but it's generally agreed that July 15 is the Big One — teams will have to set up for free agency and training camp first. That's why a large group of league operations people, including Competition Committee co-chair Rich McKay and several general managers and team presidents, are at Tuesday's meeting.
The first preseason game is scheduled to go off in 32 days. The CBA deadline for Goodell's precious London game, in 41. The Hall of Fame game in 47 days, and the season opener in 79. Subtract what's anywhere from two weeks to a month for the preparation needed, and the urgency becomes clear. Reportedly, both sides have already agreed on the parameters should a deal get done — now, they have to drill down and make it happen. Depending on whose projection you read, the owners could lose anywhere from $700 million to $1 billion were the preseason to be cancelled. If the eventual CBA resulted in a 16-game schedule, and David Doty added huge damages awarded to the players in the lockout insurance case, Goodell could find himself in the outhouse pretty quickly.
More and more, "True-Ups" will be the primary topic.
We don't yet know how much this issue will be discussed, but perhaps the most important matter between the players and the owners is that the tug-of-war regarding revenue has come to a head. The concept of "true-ups," which would guarantee the players a certain percentage of revenue above projections, is key. The players want to make sure that the owners don't cap them off and take all or most of the revenue above projection. The owners are convinced that the players don't understand their financial risk; it's their belief that if teams are forced to spend a certain percentage of cap (now reported as an estimated 90 percent in a new CBA), there should be some flexibility with that revenue stream in the event of another economic failure. In other words, if the players are to share in what seems to be another nearly inevitable windfall in the next 5-10 years, they should also be willing to feel commensurate pain if the net/net isn't what was expected in a particular year.
The players should be able to see that as a fair compromise; the real problem on their end is that there has been so much distrust built up as a result of the owners refusing to open their books to a line-by-line audit at the same time they're claiming to be in financial freefall. Some sort of independent oversight should be a deal-maker.
What's the timeline?
First, it's important to note that whether this meeting lasts one day or two, there won't be a vote on the terms of a new CBA here. All those folks out there assuming that a new deal is just days away need to calm down. Again, the purpose of this meeting is to ensure that there's a majority quorum to go forward. The NFLPA is sponsoring the Rookie Symposium in Florida next week, so there may be a limited amount of time to discuss terms between now and then. The two sides might be able to finish out the week and get even more accomplished, but it's just as realistic to expect that serious talks won't begin in earnest again until the first week in July.
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