NFL deal is winner, but not for baseball

KEN ROSENTHAL

December 24, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The NFL labor agreement makes perfect sense, but forget about using it as a blueprint for baseball. The sports are different, the histories are different, everything is different. All the NFL breakthrough does is underscore the immense problems confronting the Grand Old Game.

The football owners persuaded the players to accept a salary cap as a trade-off for free agency. What do the baseball owners have left to offer? They've bargained away every possible advantage in the past 20 years, granting the players not only free agency, but also salary arbitration.

Now, these same owners can't wait to reopen labor talks, but the players have everything to lose and nothing to gain. They're perfectly happy under the current system -- unlike their football brethren, who spent nearly six years in the legal trenches fighting for free agency.

"It would be the preference of baseball to have this, but it's a difficult thing to bring about," said Tal Smith, a former general manager and adviser to 20 clubs in the past decade. "The players are satisfied with what they have. There's no compelling reason for them to want change."

Why should they? The average baseball salary ($1.08 million) is more than twice the average football salary ($501,000). What's more, the major-league owners' call for a salary cap rings hollow NTC when they demand revenue sharing from the players, but won't adhere to the same principle themselves.

The economic viability of small-market teams is not an issue in football, where each club draws the bulk of its revenue from its share of the national television contract. Baseball teams, however, also draw considerable income from local broadcast sources. That's where the imbalance comes in.

The obvious solution -- even according to the owners' chief negotiator, Richard Ravitch -- is for the clubs to pool their local TV money, so the Seattle Mariners could compete with the same resources as the New York Yankees. Until that happens, talk of a salary cap is folly.

"The challenge to baseball owners in the '90s is to right their own ship," said player agent Jeff Moorad, who represents Gregg Olson and Will Clark in partnership with Leigh Steinberg, the agent for 22 NFL quarterbacks.

"It's time for the owners in that sport to come up with a system of revenue sharing that works. The large-market owners have got to take a piece -- if not all -- of their local broadcast revenue to help the small-market teams.

"Once that occurs, baseball owners will be in a much better position to argue for player concessions. At this point, the challenge is on the owners' side to correct some of the mistakes of the past."

Besides, where's the need for a salary cap when an owner from the mid-sized San Francisco market can pay $43.75 million to Barry Bonds just weeks after committing $100 million to buy the club?

The NBA cap arose out of desperation -- the league was in danger of folding. The NFL cap arose out of the owners' realization that without a settlement, they'd suffer yet another defeat in court. Actually, the players were generous. They could have sacked the owners but good.

Instead, they settled for the one concession they coveted most -- free agency. After all, it took years of legal battles for them to achieve essentially what their baseball counterparts did under master negotiator Marvin Miller.

The football players can become free agents after five years, four when the cap is in effect. Baseball players must wait six years, but they've got arbitration from years three to five, not to mention longer careers.

In other words, they've still got the better deal. Free agency will make less of an impact on football, and not just because of the salary cap. The brutal nature of the game ensures that most players will never become free agents. Even the ones that do might not find it to their benefit.

In football, not every player fits into every system -- the most obvious example being linebacker Wilber Marshall, a free agent who required years of adjustment before returning to stardom with the Redskins.

No baseball team would refuse a Cal Ripken, but a football team without a strong offensive line and talented receivers might think twice about a Mark Rypien. The difference is, Ripken wouldn't even reach free agency in football -- he'd be the Orioles' designated franchise player.

That idea clearly has merit, and it might ultimately surface in baseball, but don't count on it. The NFL took one path to reach its labor agreement. Baseball is following another toward its next labor war.

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