NFL deal reopens expansion door Free agency, salary cap part of accord

Baltimore could get another chance

December 23, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Because of an editing error, the average NFL player's salar was reported incorrectly in yesterday's editions. The correct figure is $501,000.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In a move that revives Baltimore's hopes to again play host to professional football, the National Football League and its players announced yesterday a tentative settlement of their six years of bruising legal combat.

If the "tentative" becomes "permanent," which is expected Monday, Baltimore and its four expansion rivals might finally find out whether the league is serious about moving beyond its current 28 teams.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Such a move also would produce a sweeping revision of the way football players move from team to team and bargain for pay. If it works, it could prove to be a model for other sports, especially baseball, as that sport heads for a showdown with its players.

Details were closely guarded yesterday, but several sources said the agreement closely followed the framework that emerged before the owners' meetings last week in Dallas.

That would give football both free agency, sought for years by the players, and a salary cap, something owners have clamored for. It would provoke a sweeping revision of the way teams acquire and trade players and probably would increase their pay. Aside from a few stars, football players have made as much as baseball players, whose pay averages $1 million a year.

But unlike baseball team owners, NFL owners would be protected against wildly increasing salaries, since a cap would limit total player payroll to a percentage of team revenues.

The league and an attorney representing the players issued a cautious joint statement yesterday saying they would meet again Monday to "finalize the settlement."

Herbert J. Belgrad, the chief of Baltimore's efforts to acquire an expansion team, said he was confident that the league would now turn its attention to expansion. According to its last ownership resolution, the league will name two new teams next year for play in 1995 if it settles its labor problems.

In addition to Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla., are finalists for expansion teams.

"This will tell us once and for all if the NFL is committed to expansion, as their resolutions say they are," said Mr. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

A source familiar with the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deal is basically done but that the parties want to be able to explain the agreement to their constituencies before it is publicized.

A conference call is scheduled for today during which NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the owners' chief negotiators, will outline the settlement for the seven-man ownership committee empowered to strike a deal.

A source involved in the talks, who had not seen the final document, said that as of yesterday morning the two sides had made several concessions: The players agreed to reduce from $200 million to $175 million the cash settlement but to extend the deal an extra year, to six with a modified seventh year.

Also, all of the named plaintiffs would immediately be free agents -- a sticking point last week -- and teams still would get to protect only a single "franchise player" from being lured away to another team.

The agreement is not technically a collective bargaining agreement, but rather a settlement of several lawsuits filed against the league.

The league hopes the players will vote to reinstate their union, but that will be up to the players, according to officials with the NFL Players Association, which decertified itself as a union in a legal gambit.

An agreement between the two sides will have to be approved by David Doty, the federal judge overseeing the cases, and will be subject to objections by players.

On the expansion front, there was some hope that the league would pick the expansion cities at a scheduled March ownership meeting. But Mr. Belgrad and others cautioned that such a decision could come later.

The league has discussed allowing the cities to sell luxury seats and sky boxes as a test of the market. If that was done, the winners probably would not be announced until mid- or late summer, Mr. Belgrad said.

Gene McHale, a sports marketing consultant working with Baltimore's effort, said the proposed settlement will be closely watched by other sports and, if it works, be copied.

But he added that the deal, which includes elements of the National Basketball Association's highly successful agreement, also could delay expansion because some teams might want to test the new concepts before agreeing to bring two more teams into the fold. Also, the league at one time said it wanted a television contract before expanding -- something it subsequently obtained but that is now expiring.

Other league observers are skeptical that the league will move quickly to do anything that would dilute earnings in the short run. The league shares television and other revenues equally among teams.

But NFL spokesman Greg Aeillo said, "I think our statements have been clear that the impediment to expansion was labor. If we were able to remove that impediment, then we will expand. On what timetable I don't know."

Bryan Glazer, whose father, Malcolm Glazer, is one of three investors seeking to own a Baltimore franchise, termed the accord "fantastic news."

"I don't think there is any question that the league is serious about expansion," he said.

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