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Can NFL survive labor unrest?

Published January 15. 2010 05:00PM

Here we go again. Greedy rich men are fighting over money and the poor saps like us are the ones who suffer.

Because owners and players can't agree on how to share the billions of dollars made each year on pro football, the NFL faces an uncapped season in 2010 and a probable player lockout in 2011.

This week, I set out to do some research and learn why both of those scenarios are likely. The more I read, the more I realized that without a few years of law school I probably would not understand all of the complex issues.

I did come to understand that this was bound to happen ever since 2006 when the league and the players association signed their most recent collective bargaining agreement.

That CBA (collective bargaining agreement) set rules for pretty much every financial aspect of NFL operations, but the biggest issue in the 361-page document, which is available on the players association web site for anyone to read and few to comprehend, was the portion of league revenue that would be allotted to player salaries.

That CBA reinforced the league's revenue sharing policy and stipulated that player salaries should equal 56 and 58 percent of league revenue, depending on the year. Owners felt that was too much then and still do now. That's why they opted out of the agreement two years before it was to expire in 2012.

The CBA stipulates that the final year will be an uncapped year. With the owners opting out, next year is the final year of the agreement and unless a new agreement is reached pretty soon, 2010 will be an uncapped year.

If there is no salary cap, there will also be no salary floor. Under the current CBA teams are not allowed to spend less than 84-86.4 percent (depending on the year) on player salaries.

If the floor is not in place next season, pro football fans can only hope the NFL doesn't turn into Major League Baseball, where the Yankees spend as much on their top players as the Marlins spend on their entire team. Fans can only hope that the small market NFL teams don't sell off half their rosters while the big money-making teams buy up all the top players.

The reason that hasn't happened, as we all know, is the NFL, unlike MLB, uses revenue sharing. The 32 franchises split practically all revenue equally. But that is also a bone of contention among owners.

Some owners, like Dallas' Jerry Jones, are more aggressive and creative in finding ways to make money. He would sell naming rights to the wrinkles on his face if someone would pay for it.

Whereas other owners don't do as much to make money. The Bengals' Mike Brown refuses to sell naming rights to his stadium, preferring to keep his father's name on his team's home. Jones sees that as throwing away millions. Brown sees it as upholding the legacy of his father, Paul Brown, who helped the NFL become the best and most lucrative sports league in the world.

The players don't really care what the owners do with their money as long as the players are getting what they feel is their fair share. But the players and owners are unlikely to ever agree on what their fair share is.

The CBA and revenue sharing are huge factors in giving the NFL more competitive balance than the other major sports leagues. If the greedy rich men (players and owners alike) can't stop fighting over money, they might get a diminished product next season and no product at all the season after that.

How this plays out is anyone's guess. A few years ago the NHL missed a whole season and that league lost some, if not most, of its popularity in the process.

Back in 1987 the NFL players went on strike and the league used replacements. Because the players were not getting paid during that strike, it wasn't long before they traded in picket signs for pads.

Baseball cancelled a World Series because of labor issues and it took steroid induced home run races to regain most of its popularity.

Right now football is king. It is by far the most popular sport at the professional level in this country. Will it remain that way through labor unrest and will the fans sit idly by while the players and owners argue over how to divy up the money?

Unfortunately we're likely to find out over the next few years.

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