NFL Labor Armageddon 2011: Handicapping the NFL vs. NFLPA Dispute

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NFL Labor Armageddon 2011: Handicapping the NFL vs. NFLPA Dispute
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Rookie contracts like Sam Bradford's will be at the center of negotiations for a new NFL Collective Bargain Agreement.

When the most recent Collective Bargain Agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association was negotiated in 2006, NFL owners were internally divided and desperate to maintain their cash flow.

Particularly influential was Jerry Jones, who was in dire need of income to support the building of his new stadium. He was highly influential among owners at the time, turning the ear of more cash-strapped owners like Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills.

In exchange for the quick and dirty agreement of 2006, the richer owners essentially promised labor Armageddon for their relatively poorer brethren to bring them to fiscal competitiveness. The NFL owners have been planning for March 3, 2011 for five long years.

Since their mistakes of the 1980s, the NFL owners have clearly marked themselves as the smartest of the pro sport owners in the US. They will never risk the league crushing labor disputes that baseball, basketball and hockey all suffered in the 1990s. They've set out their goals for 2011 and they aim to get them as quickly and effectively as possible.

So what then are the major issues and how can we expect them to be decided in the coming months?

The Franchise Tag

The fact is, the franchise tag is a relic of the days when NFL owners were scared stiff of this newfangled "free agency" concept and didn't know how to manage player costs. Remember the "Transition Tag," i.e. the franchise tag for not-quite-so-awesome players? Gone. The franchise tag is not far behind.

In today's NFL the best teams lock up their best players for the long term as soon as they can. That guys like Michael Vick and Peyton Manning aren't signed to long-term deals right now is a function of the current labor impasse. To rectify that, you'll likely see one more year of a franchise tag with the owners happy to give the tag away in exchange for...

A Rookie Wage Scale

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This is a bit of a red herring as it's a card the players will likely be thrilled to trade in for a few extra percentage points of total revenue. There's already a draft pick cap and you can't really expect current players making under the league median salary to stand up for Sam Bradford's right to pull in $79 million before throwing an NFL pass.

The fact is, it's the responsible thing to do for the sport. When teams end up with Ryan Leafs instead of Sam Bradfords, it buries franchises—and the league's competitive balance—for years. Expect to see a tighter rookie wage scale in the new CBA.

Salary Cap Allotment

The current CBA signed in 2006 actually increased the percentage of Total Revenue allotted to players over that allotted in the previous CBA. Gene Upshaw did a miraculous job of understanding the owners' divided camp in 2006 and brought home a CBA that was honestly too good to last.

For the four seasons 2006 through 2009, players' percentage of total revenue was 57.8 percent. In the four seasons prior it was 55.6 percent. Given the owners' preparation for this showdown and the fact that this is DeMaurice Smith's initial foray as Upshaw's replacement, a shave backward seems very likely. Especially if the players don't want...

The 18-Game Season

Owners are likely salivating at the idea of expanding their revenue base by adding more games. However, this is a case where they likely need to be saved from themselves. Increased injuries, dilution of the product, the prospect of enduring nearly five full months of NFC West "competition" all loom as arguments that NFL owners are growing perilously close to killing the goose of football excitement that lays their golden revenue eggs.

While the players have dug in hard on this issue, the owners have begun to ply them with promises of fewer required offseason workouts and no live contact practices in season. Like the rookie wage scale, a few tenths of a percent of total revenue toward the players and owners will get what they want.

The expanded season question comes down to how much the owners want it. If it's just a bargaining chip to trade for keeping more total revenue, then it's a very strong one. If, on the other hand, owners feel that increasing the players' share will increase their bottom line that much more, they may very well buy their way into it.

Owners estimate they'll lose $400 million per week if games have to be canceled in 2011 because of labor strife. It doesn't take a genius to understand that if, instead, they added two more games, the league would generate nearly $1 billion in additional revenue. By about how much have the owners said they want to reduce the players' share of revenue? $1 billion.

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