Labor issue gets local revenue twist


If battle lines were drawn in the NFL's latest scuffle with its players union, those lines would look more like a triangle than trench warfare.

You've got high-rolling landlords in one corner, small-market owners in another and a group of anxious players pondering the complexity of it all.

It's not quite a free-for-all, but negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement may require a roster and a road map. Here's why:

The players, under the auspices of the NFL Players Association, want a larger percentage of league revenue. But they want that percentage of the league's total football revenues to include the suddenly sizzling local revenues.

The high-revenue owners - folks like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder and the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft - not only don't want to share their local revenues with the players, but they also don't want to share them with the other owners.

And the small-market owners - people like the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson, the Kansas City Chiefs' Lamar Hunt and the Ravens' Steve Bisciotti - feel they need to share all local revenues to maintain competitive balance in an ever-growing league.

Complicating the issue is the fact the players union wants the debate over local revenues settled before signing off on a collective bargaining agreement, so as to get a greater percentage of the bigger pie.

But the owners want a collective bargaining agreement in place before deciding how much local revenue they're willing to share.

Piece of cake, right?

Maybe that's why Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFLPA, was so fractious during his state-of-the-union address in Detroit last week.

It's also why commissioner Paul Tagliabue, after 12 years of labor peace, was less than optimistic a day later when assessing negotiations.

"If we are having difficulty now reaching an agreement," Upshaw said, "I don't want to imagine what it would be like in 2006 and 2007, when there's an uncapped year. Because if they don't like our proposal now, they really won't like it when we go [deeper into negotiations]."

The NFL's calendar year technically starts in March. This year, it marks the beginning of a 12-month countdown to chaos.

The current CBA has two years to run. But if there is no agreement on a new deal in 2006, the salary cap will be lifted for the 2007 season, making it an uncapped year.

Imagine the Redskins' Snyder with no financial ceiling to sign all the Pro Bowl players he wants. Imagine the high-revenue teams - among them, the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos - with money to burn and owners who want to win.

Furthermore, imagine the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers - small-market teams all - trying to keep up with the high rollers in player costs.

"We have serious economic issues that we have to address and resolve," Tagliabue said in Detroit. "I don't know if we'll get something done by the annual [owners'] meeting in March right now, because it has been one step forward and at least several steps backward on a lot of different issues."

Free agency starts March 3. The owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., begin March 26. On March 9, Upshaw will confer with union representatives to determine if the NFLPA needs to decertify in anticipation of a lockout by the owners.

"Let's face it, the recent past shows that in sports, the leagues are inclined to lock out," NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen said at the union news conference.

But if the union decertified, the owners couldn't lock out the players under antitrust law, Berthelsen said. If the owners tried, the union would take them to antitrust court.

As Berthelsen sees it, in that scenario there would be no union, no lockout and games would go on. But there would have to be "some form of reasonable free agency," he said.

Tagliabue downplayed that scenario.

"I don't think we'll be in litigation," he said. "I don't think we'll be decertifying the players association. I don't agree with some of the things that Gene said along those lines, but we are not making the kind of progress that I think is necessary."

The union reportedly rejected an offer from the owners last month. Upshaw wants at least 60 percent of the league's total football revenues - reported he is seeking 65 percent - to go toward player costs.

While Upshaw has issues with the high-market owners, he doesn't have one with Snyder.

"You have to take Dan Snyder out because he's completely different," Upshaw said. "He's a high-revenue club and he spends a lot of money on his players. We like that; we think that's great.

"What I have a problem with [is] there's a group of those guys that are in the high-revenue area that are spending less than $66 million on their players out of $300 million. That's not a fair share."

At the other end, Upshaw said, there are low-market teams spending 70 to 80 percent of their revenue on player costs.

"Either they want to have a system or they don't want to have one," Upshaw said. "But either way, if we get through the capped year [in 2006] and we go to the uncapped year, we won't come back."

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