Whenever the billionaires and millionaires of sports collide, flanked by seasoned masters of law and spin, the prevailing sentiment holds that there is no side for which to cheer.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The National Football League is headed for a lockout after the season. I’m pulling for the players, who operate under the most onerous collective bargaining agreement of the four major U.S. sports leagues. Most athletes in the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball have guaranteed contracts, meaning they get paid no matter what, even if their bodies are rendered too broken to play.
Most in the NFL, though, don’t enjoy the same guarantee, which is why every season you’re treated to so many contract holdouts. NFL players covet every guaranteed penny because it might be the only money they ever see.
Professional football isn’t a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. It’s a violent game with physical consequences that usually outlive playing days. No player goes into a baseball, hockey or basketball game thinking their careers might end on the next play. Lots of NFL players think that way because they have to. Just like that, an NFL player could be an ex-NFL player without anything arriving in the mailbox on the first and 15th of every month.
You have to laugh every time an NFL team announces that Player X has signed some gargantuan contract. Ignore those zeroes; they’re meaningless. There’s only one question to ask whenever a football player inks a new contract: How much is guaranteed? That’s why New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis used whatever leverage he had, including a training-camp holdout, to force team owner Woody Johnson to up his offer.
It worked. Good for Revis. Unlike Johnson, he won’t benefit for decades to come from the luxury suites and seat-license revenue generated by New Meadowlands Stadium, which one day will have a naming-rights partner.
That will mean even more money for Johnson, more for the other owners, a number of whom show up on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest Americans. Seattle’s Paul Allen was on the list at No. 17. The Microsoft Corp. co-founder was joined by Miami’s Stephen Ross, Tampa’s Malcolm Glazer, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, Robert McNair of the Texans, Jim Irsay of the Colts, Arthur Blank of the Falcons, Jeffrey Lurie of the Eagles and William Ford Sr. of the Lions.
When the time comes, when you hear about players wanting more of the NFL’s $8 billion in annual revenue, remember these are the folks crying poverty.
Partnership at War
NFL executives and team owners love referring to their business relationship with the players as a partnership. It isn’t. It’s us against them.
Get this: Owners might end the players’ health insurance should the labor contract expire without an agreement. Some partnership, huh?
“If we do not reach agreement on a new CBA by March, we will have to make a decision on health care benefits for current players,” the NFL said in a statement, referring to the collective bargaining agreement.
That’s how you treat a foe, not a partner, folks. Why employ a win-now mentality during negotiations when the, uh, partnership, will outlive any animosity born at the bargaining table? A few more bucks, maybe.
Management has made no secret of its desire for an 18-game regular season. Owners sell the idea, at least in part, by telling us that customers abhor preseason games and that they would rather have more football that actually counts.
Forget, for a minute, the significant health implications of two more games, which I’ve written about. Let’s focus, instead, on the laughable notion that owners care about what the fans want.
If caring about the customer motivated decision-making, then owners during difficult economic times would suspend the television-blackout rule, which states that a team’s game can’t be broadcast locally if it isn’t sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The rule is designed to prevent folks from just watching on TV, leaving stadiums empty.
The finger-pointing is just beginning. It will grow, all right, in frequency and intensity.
In times of labor turmoil fan animosity usually is aimed at the players, who, helmets and face masks aside, are the collective face of the sport. Yes, athletes, football players included, make a lot of money.
When the football mud flies, though, just remember the owners make more. Lots more.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)