Less than 12 hours from now, at 12:01 a.m EST Friday morning, the NFL will experience something that has not occurred since 1993—the start of the new league year without a salary cap, the looming possibility of a lockout in 2011, and a future without a current Collective Bargaining Agreement in place.
For the first time in 17 years, a dark, ominous cloud now hangs over the NFL, with the continued future of labor peace between the league and the NFL Players Association slowly diminishing.
A seemingly nasty labor battle looks to ensue, and it could possibly end up destroying the solid foundation on which the NFL has become the nation's most popular sport.
In May 2008, the NFL owners voted unanimously to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and NFL Players Association that was set to expire in 2012. By opting out of the CBA early, the owners would force the 2010 season to be played without a salary cap, which might possibly lead to a lockout in 2011.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted saying in 2008, "We have guaranteed three more years of football," after the owners announced they were using the opt-out clause built into the CBA when it was extended in 2006.
Goodell would continue, "We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal."
Former NFLPA executive director, the late Gene Upshaw, called NFL owners "greedy."
The hot button issue related to the current CBA is the amount of revenue owners share with the players.
After two delays to the start of 2006 league year, the owners and union agreed to changes to the CBA right before the final deadline. Those changes guaranteed players 59.5 percent of Total Football Revenue, and it also changed how the revenue was shared among higher and lower-earning clubs.
Before the changes, players were receiving 64 percent of Designated Gross Revenues (gate receipts and broadcast income). Now they would be receiving 59.5 percent of Total Football Revenue (everything except some revenue-generating monies). It was an all-around win for the players.
Of the $3.6 billion in new revenue generated from the last extension of the CBA in 2006, owners of the 32 NFL franchises have paid the players $2.6 billion in revenue sharing. They kept $1 billion for themselves, all the while contending they had spent $1.2 billion.
In essence, the owners say they are losing money, and the new deal doesn't work.
"That's why the owners terminated out of the deal," commissioner Goodell was quoted saying at this years scouting combine. "They want a new deal, but they want to restructure it. They made the decision two years ago (that) they'd rather be in an uncapped year than the current deal. That's what we're trying to address."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has a different take on it.
When Smith addressed the media during a press conference at Super Bowl XLIV, he cited data from Forbes magazine stating, "How do I go in front of my players with information from Forbes that teams average $31 million in profit and justify an 18 percent pay cut?" He continued saying that asking players to take a roll back in salaries with that information is a "tough sell."
The league has refused to give the union more access to financial records, using independent auditors instead, raising concerns to the obvious question: Could the league be more financially stable than what they actually say?
Owners say they are spending too much money on player costs. The salary cap for the 2009 season was $123 million per team. Of that $123 million, teams had to spend a minimum of 87.8 percent on players' salaries.
With the 2010 season not having a salary cap, players with less than six years of playing time are unable to file for unrestricted free agency. There were 212 players affected by this requirement, many of them top-dollar players that in other years would have been able to test the free agent market in hopes of a big payday.
The future of football in 2011 is uncertain.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was asked to rate the potential for a lockout in 2011 on a scale of one to 10—he said, "14."
Smith has also informed players to start planning ahead monetarily in the event of a lockout in 2011. He also stated that the NFL would have a $5 billion war chest in the event players were locked out.
The finger pointing game will continue. The players blame the owners for being too greedy, and the owners are complaining the players aren't giving enough concessions. In the end, all of this bickering between the owners and players is going to affect one key component.
Over the past two years, the NFL has seen itself change from a time of labor peace to a time of labor war, jeopardizing a record for the longest streak of play uninterrupted by a labor dispute. The most of any major U.S. professional sports league since 1987.