This one could get ugly; no, not the Super Bowl

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. - With all due respect to the many Pittsburgh Steelers fans clogging every thoroughfare and restaurant within 50 miles of Raymond James Stadium ... and to that single Arizona Cardinals fan who has been wandering the streets, seemingly lost and still stunned that his team is playing in the Super Bowl ... and to the corporate suits who overpaid for their tents, suites and seats here - tomorrow's matchup is about as exciting as a Fran Drescher karaoke party.

But a much more intriguing showdown has taken center stage this week. And the stakes are much bigger than some shiny trophy. After the circus packs up and leaves town tomorrow, we start looking at the future of the NFL, with a collective bargaining agreement expiring, a possible lockout looming and uncertainty around every corner. It's owners vs. players - billionaires vs. millionaires, if you will.

The owners opted out of the current deal last spring, and a new agreement must be struck by March 2010. That might seem like a long time, but here's the problem: The worsening economy has altered the landscape considerably, and while both sides will be determined to have their way, the risk is greater and potential for losses more likely.

The rhetoric thrown around Tampa this week - first Thursday by the NFL Players Association and then yesterday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell - makes clear that both sides are gearing up for a bloody battle.

"The economics were difficult prior to the economy turning south on us," Goodell said. "What's happened now with the economy turning difficult for all of us, I think that it just accentuated the negatives in that collective bargaining agreement. I think the owners feel that it's critically important for the future of the game, for the future of the business, that they re-evaluate this."

For the union's part, it paraded around a 17-page report called "The Economics of NFL Team Ownership," which seems to indicate what many suspect: The NFL has more cash lying around than the U.S. mint's storage room. The report claims team values have quadrupled in the past decade and that teams profited by an average of $24 million last year. (Goodell hadn't read the report, but he called it a piece of fiction.)

Everyone seems to know where this could be headed. As we move into the offseason, it feels like that brief period when Wile E. Coyote runs off the edge of the cliff and is suspended in the air just long enough to whip out a sign reading "Help!"

Asked last month about a possible lockout, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti didn't mince words. "All I can tell you is that the NFL is building a blueprint and making sure we are all educated on what ramifications are for a potential work stoppage," he said.

The players are preparing for that possibility, too. If the two sides can't reach an agreement before the start of the 2010 season, that season will be played with no cap. And if there's no deal by the end of 2010, a lockout seems likely for 2011. The players' union dues - $10,000 per year - currently go into what is essentially a strike fund. "We don't call it that anymore," said Richard Berthelsen, the union's interim executive director. "It's an 'In Case We Need It Fund.' "

The owners bailed on the current deal just two years after the two sides agreed to it, essentially saying the players were receiving too big a slice of pie.

"We're in a state of economy now where there's a lot of uncertain things," Berthelsen said. "But certainly looking back, that revenue pie has continued to grow, and the players see no reason why their slice of that pie should be any smaller in the future."

As the two sides sharpen their knives, they seem eager to use the struggling economy as justification for their fight. Actually, this scary landscape should give them every reason to work out an agreement, to not wait until the last minute. Fans, worried about keeping their homes and saving their jobs, might not be patient and understanding in watching the rich bicker about how to get richer.

Though seats are filled and TV ratings are up, the NFL has been laying off employees, and several teams - such as the Washington Redskins - have also been trimming their staffs. Others are saving money in different ways. For example, anyone notice the Ravens managed to replace their highly paid defensive coordinator and a top front office position by promoting from within?

So while the union is eager to paint owners as a bunch of fat cats, Goodell wants you to know times are tight.

"I've been very clear that we're not immune to what's going on out in the economy," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty; uncertainty clearly breeds fear."

Both sides should be plenty scared. If they drag this out, they stand to lose their biggest asset - fans.


Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Steelers

by 6 1/2

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