NFL, Union Resume Meetings as Labor Deadline Day Arrives

The National Football League and its players’ union gave little indication as they started a 16th day of mediated talks that they’re close to bridging an almost $1 billion-a-year divide before the scheduled expiration of their labor accord today.

Team owners and union leadership filed into the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in Washington this morning for more talks under the supervision of George H. Cohen, head of the government agency. They held separate meetings there yesterday.

The NFL and its union are struggling to agree on how to split up $9 billion in annual revenue, the most of any professional sports league. The labor accord originally was scheduled to end last week. Unless there’s a further extension, owners may shut down the league and the union may stop representing its members, allowing individual players to sue the league, citing antitrust violations.

“If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this done, it will get done,” Jeff Pash, the NFL’s lead negotiator, told reporters as he left talks yesterday. “Things can come together quickly and they can fall apart quickly.”

In addition to the division of revenue, the league and union are at odds over health-care provisions and whether to extend the season to 18 games from 16. The talks come weeks after the Super Bowl championship game drew the largest television audience in U.S. history.

Extension Indicator

Whether another extension is discussed is an indicator of how the talks are going, said Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If you ask for an extension, you are signaling that you haven’t presented them your final best offer and there is more to talk about,” Shropshire said in an interview. “If you aren’t asking for an extension, you are saying, ‘This is really my best deal. There is no need to get back together again.’”

The sides opted for a weeklong extension three days after U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis ruled that the league improperly negotiated $4 billion in television rights fees that owners might have tapped in a work stoppage.

Under the expiring agreement, about $1 billion is set aside for expenses such as stadium costs and before the players’ share is calculated as a percentage of the remaining $8 billion.

$1 Billion

The league wants to set aside an additional $1 billion for costs, according to the union. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, told the NFL Network this week that they are now $800 million apart on this figure.

A work stoppage would end 24 years of labor peace and may empty stadiums financed with a combined $7 billion in taxpayer money. It may also interrupt the schedules of the largest U.S. broadcasters and leave fans without a sport that, during the 2010 regular season, was watched by a record 207.7 million people, according to Nielsen Co. data.

Americans, by a ratio of more than 2-to-1, are lining up with players in the dispute.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 4-7 showed that 43 percent of those surveyed side with the players and 20 percent with the owners. The remaining 37 percent either don’t follow football or aren’t sure which side they favor.

“Fans live vicariously through the players and are more sympathetic to player causes,” David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said in an interview.

Audited Figures

Smith wants to review each team’s audited financial statements to justify the owners’ demand for more money. The parties have been discussing a 6- to 8-year extension.

“How much financial information would you want before you were being asked to write a $5 billion check?” Smith said to reporters two days ago. “The information that was offered was not what we asked for.”

Pash responded that the NFL has given the union unprecedented access to its finances during the talks.

“Has it gotten everything it wants? Evidently not,” he said. “Have we offered to provide more? Absolutely. And is it a subject that we’re prepared to discuss? Absolutely.”

During a March 9 fan event at union headquarters, Smith said the players’ association is unwilling to accept an 18-game regular season.

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