Representatives for National Football League players approved a 10-year labor agreement, ending a four-month shutdown and allowing the U.S.’s richest and most-popular sports league to reopen for business.
NFL Players Association leadership voted unanimously to recommend that players accept the deal and re-establish their union, according to DeMaurice Smith, the group’s executive director.
“Football is back,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters outside the association’s Washington headquarters.
Teams can begin signing drafted and undrafted first-year players tomorrow; negotiating with, but not signing, other players; and making trades. As of July 29, teams can begin signing free agents and training camps may open 15 days before each team’s first preseason game.
Owners last week approved by a 31-0 vote the decade-long deal that caps team payrolls at about $120 million this season, with players receiving another $22 million or so in benefits. The players must receive at least 47 percent of the league’s revenue, projected at a record $9.3 billion in 2011, throughout the 10 years.
The agreement also limits how much teams can spend on first-year players, allows current players to stay in the league’s medical plan for life and allows them more days off, with fewer offseason practices. The deal also provides between $900 million and $1 billion for retiree benefits.
Giants owner John Mara said negotiations had been long and difficult.
“Neither side got everything they wanted, but I think what we did achieve is a fair deal that will stand the test of time,” Mara said. “We have something here that’s going to serve the best interests of the National Football League for many years to come.”
The NFL in March locked out players, who dissolved their union and sued in federal court, claiming antitrust violations and wage fixing, led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
The work stoppage ended 24 years of labor peace, about five weeks after the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in the Super Bowl title game, attracting the largest television audience in U.S. history.
The league last week held a seminar for club executives outlining the terms of the labor agreement and the calendar. The season will begin with a free agency period that Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie described as extraordinarily compressed, leaving his club hoping to be “opportunistic” as teams try to hire players about two weeks before playing preseason games.
Players available include Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, New York Jets receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes and Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
“It’s going to be intense,” Lurie said. “I think teams are going to have to really make smart decisions, as opposed to instinctive-type ones. Hopefully, a team has planned well for the last several months and they know exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Smith said players still must re-establish their union, which was disbanded to precipitate the antitrust suit. Negotiators are also still working on issues, including health and safety, pensions, grievances and discipline, that require players to be unionized, he said.
The lockout canceled just the preseason’s first game between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, scheduled for Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio. Goodell last week said there wasn’t enough time to prepare.
The regular season is scheduled to open Sept. 8 when the Packers host the New Orleans Saints.
The NFL gained publicity and attention during the lockout, according to Eric Wright, vice president for research and development at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Joyce Julius, which measures the value of media exposure and sponsorships.
The number of references to the NFL appearing in news publications doubled in May and June to 37,000 from 18,300 a year ago, Wright said. The league would have needed to spend $40 million to buy all the print, television and internet exposure it received in those two months, he said.
Goodell said he knows that the lockout still angered fans.
“We know what we did to frustrate our fans over the last several months,” he said. “I think we have some work to do, though, to make sure that they understand that we are sorry for the frustration we put them through over the last six months but our commitment is to bring them better football going forward.”