The National Football League players’ union leader has a message for fans: Enjoy the games now, because there may be none next year.
Owners of the most-watched U.S. sport probably will lock players out after this season because little progress has been made toward negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for the league’s 1,700 players, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in a interview.
The sides don’t agree on the percent of league revenue shared between owners and players, rookie salaries, the length of the season, health coverage and drug testing, Smith said. The union says the NFL’s 32 teams generated $8.8 billion in revenue last year; the league has said $8 billion.
“I still feel that a lockout is coming in March,” Smith said.
On Aug. 26 NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a press conference at an owners’ meeting in Atlanta that he believed an agreement was forthcoming. The NFL declined to make Goodell available to be interviewed for this story.
“Both parties want to reach an agreement and I believe both parties will get to an agreement,” said Goodell, 51. “It’s just a matter of when.”
The season begins tomorrow when the New Orleans Saints host the Minnesota Vikings.
The league has said the cost of building and operating stadiums has risen and has asked to double the amount the league sets aside for stadium costs to $2 billion a year, reducing the amount going to players.
Smith, 46, said the players are already financially supporting stadium construction, and that the NFL has not provided figures to justify its claims.
“If this model is not working, i.e. teams are losing money, then we’re willing to see the evidence of that and make the changes,” Smith said. “But prove it. If not, what’s the justification for getting a billion back from us?”
The league also is studying expanding the regular season to 18 games from its current 16 and reducing the number of exhibition games to two from four.
The union said that is something that must be negotiated. Smith said the extra games may shorten the average NFL career -- currently at 3.6 years -- and that might affect health coverage. Players now get five years of post-career health-care coverage. Smith said the union wants to make sure the additional regular-season games don’t make it harder for players to reach the eligibility standard.
“We don’t look at two extra games as being divorced from the health, medical and safety standpoint,” Smith said. “It’s impossible to divorce one part of this from the whole.”
Some other issues include whether to start drug testing for human growth hormone. In March, Major League Baseball became the first pro sports league to start random blood testing for HGH in the minor leagues. The NFL union says a reliable test for HGH hasn’t been created yet. It also wants a third-party review of all drug-related suspensions.
The league wants to reduce the money paid to untested rookies such as St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall draft pick out of the University of Oklahoma, who signed a five-year, $78 million agreement that guarantees him $50 million before he’s ever played a down.
“It’s time for us to modify the system,” Goodell told Sirius NFL Radio on Aug. 5. “It’s out of whack. I think the money should be going to the guys who have performed on the field.”
The union proposed reducing the maximum length of rookie contracts to four years from six, which it says would free up as much as $200 million. The union said it suggested spending $100 million on veterans and using the other $100 million on pensions for older players. Smith said the union wants to be sure the savings on rookie contracts get spent on veterans.
Smith said the union and league have agreed on some issues, including having a neutral arbitrator hear appeals of on-field discipline; fines for on-field violations won’t be collected until after an appeal is heard, and players now have a right to get copies of their medical records from the team within 60 days after the season ends.
Both sides might be prepared if there is a work stoppage in 2011. Smith said the union has saved $200 million in a lockout fund, but wouldn’t say how he planned to use it. The league will still get $4 billion in television money whether or not there is a lockout, under its contracts with News Corp.’s Fox, CBS Corp., General Electric Co.’s NBC, Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN and DirecTV.
“Fifty percent of their overhead is players’ salaries and benefits,” Smith said. “They can lock us out, and it’s a net-win for them.”