King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NFL avoids a labor disaster, proving that you don't get to be the NFL by acting like the NHL or MLB.


Salon Staff
March 10, 2006 1:00AM (UTC)

I don't know about you but I've been kind of half watching the clock-stopping NFL labor negotiations for the past week, figuring I'd pay attention when they worked it out.

I knew they'd work it out because -- and this is a core belief of mine, a fundamental piece of knowledge akin to understanding that if I drop something heavy it will fall down, not up -- nobody is as stupid as NHL owners.

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For a week or so there, the NFL owners and players association were doing a pretty good impersonation of their hockey counterparts, but after pushing back deadlines a half-dozen times they finally reached agreement Wednesday on a six-year extension to the labor contract, through 2011.

What's that? Oh, sorry to confuse you. Hockey is an exciting game played on a sheet of ice. You can catch NHL games on the Outdoor Life Network whenever you get tired of watching poker on the big sports nets.

Some of you younger kids won't remember this, but the NHL used to be a pretty big league in the United States. Two, three, seven years ago, something like that -- who can remember? -- the league's owners thought it would be a good idea to shut down the league for a whole year to win some concessions from the players union.

They won those concessions, I'm told by Canadian friends. Now hockey's back, it's better than ever after some rule changes, and it regularly gets trounced in the ratings by informercials for nose-hair clippers.

Which, incidentally, have also improved lately.

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Of course, hockey was struggling before its labor armageddon, thanks to years of mismanagement. In that way it was the direct opposite of the NFL, which has spent the last decade and a half solidifying its position as the superpower of American sports while, not coincidentally, enjoying labor peace.

There's pretty clearly something about the game of American football that speaks to the American psyche and all that, but there's nothing preordained about the NFL being the biggest sports league.

It was around for five decades before it became the biggest, and there's nothing to say that if things had gone a little differently at midcentury, baseball wouldn't have stayed on top, or basketball might have become the juggernaut. Those sports speak to us too.

The reason the NFL won the battle is because it was the best-run business. There were a lot of things the NFL did right, such as arriving at an early understanding of the power of television, but the key to its success was revenue sharing.

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The teams threw most of their income into a pot and divvied it up equally. As former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell has been saying for decades, NFL owners are "32 fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist," with the number growing as the NFL has expanded.

The system leveled the playing field and allowed teams to thrive in small markets, even in the preposterously small market of Green Bay, Wis., which makes Kansas City, Mo., look like Tokyo.

In recent years, some of the richer owners have wanted to get away from that system. The national money we can still share, the group led by Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Dan Snyder of Washington have been saying, but local revenue streams we've developed on our own, we should be able to keep.

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This threatened to create a two-tiered system, because there just aren't the same opportunities to create local revenue in smaller markets as there are in larger ones.

You will notice, baseball fans, if I may take one of my hobbyhorses for a walk around the paddock, that the problem of competitive imbalance, of haves and have-nots, arose in the NFL with a salary cap firmly in place. It arose when the revenue-sharing system began to break down.

Interestingly, the NFL Players Association wanted greater revenue sharing. It wanted more money thrown into the middle and divvied up, so that all 32 teams could afford to pay high salaries. The baseball union has fought revenue sharing for years because it wants a few teams to get super rich and set the market by paying super-high salaries.

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Jones and his cabal, incredibly, wanted to move toward the baseball model. It would have benefited him, in the sense that climbing to the top deck of a sinking ship benefits a person.

The impasse led the NFL to the brink of the NHL model. That is, let's all get together and flush.

If an agreement couldn't be reached, 2006 would have been played under the same salary cap as 2005, and 2007, the last year of the old contract, would have been an uncapped year. Union chief Gene Upshaw had said that once the salary cap went away, the players would never accept it again.

Famous last words, as hockey players can tell you, but still. Upshaw had begun to take steps to have the union decertify itself to prevent a lockout in 2008. Had that scenario played out, the '08 season could have been lost, NHL style, while the two sides fought in court.

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Keep in mind, we're talking about introducing this chaos into the most successful sports enterprise in American history during the most successful period in its own history. The stupidity of going down that road would have made the NHL owners look like a Mensa meeting.

I think the NFL can do almost anything it puts its mind to, but that would have been a hell of a trick.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's dogged efforts kept the talks going through multiple deadlines, and he was finally able to persuade the wealthier owners to modify and accept the union's proposal, which called for players to get a lower percentage of a greater pool of shared revenue, a total increase for the players.

Both sides seem happy with the agreement. They should be. They almost became the NHL. Near-death experiences have a way of making you look on the bright side.

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Previous column: Barry Bonds steroids book

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