The NFL's haughty dispute between big-market and small-market teams over revenue sharing is back. Spurred by rising costs in a sluggish economy, league owners decided yesterday to terminate their collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association in 2011.
By unanimous vote, the 32 owners effectively shortened the current CBA by two years, opening the door to a year without a salary cap (2010) and a potential lockout in 2011.
Rest assured, America, there will be uninterrupted football at least until then.
"We have guaranteed three more years of NFL football," commissioner Roger Goodell said at a news conference during league meetings in Atlanta. "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."
Small-market owners have pushed to opt out of the deal negotiated in March 2006 by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA. The rest of the owners have since come to view it as an agreement that favors players.
The Ravens are part of the small-market core. Exorbitant stadium deals and large population bases put teams such as the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New England Patriots in big-market company.
During a teleconference yesterday, Upshaw said revenue sharing remains at the center of the discontent.
"It always will be and it always has," he said. "As I told players this fall ... [the owners] hate paying the players, but they hate paying and sharing with each other even more than they hate paying the players. That's always going to be there."
With the clock running in the spring of 2006, the union forced the owners to endorse revenue sharing at a higher level, along with conceding 59.5 percent of gross revenues to the players. This season, the NFL will commit $4.5 billion of a projected $8.5 billion in revenues to players.
Upshaw expected the owners to exercise the termination clause in the CBA, although they could have done it as late as Nov. 8. By doing it now, the league wanted to launch negotiations immediately. The original CBA was to end with the 2013 season.
Upshaw has ruled out givebacks from the CBA of two years ago and said the union won't agree to a rookie salary cap. He invoked history (the players have always gotten a better deal with each CBA) and the threat of an uncapped season to make his case.
"We hope to settle it before 2010," he said. "We know that when we get to 2010, a lot of crazy things start happening. We like our chances in 2010. ... If we get to 2011, there's no rules, no agreement, no nothing."
Without a salary cap in 2010, every team can spend whatever it wants on players - high or low. The union concession in that climate is that a player must play six seasons to become a free agent, as opposed to the four it takes now.
And once the salary cap is gone, Upshaw said he won't try to foist it on the players again.
According to Upshaw, Goodell gave him three reasons for terminating the CBA: increased labor costs, money given to unproven rookies and the league's failure to recoup bonuses from players who subsequently breach their contracts.
In a release, the NFL said the agreement does not recognize that costs of generating gross revenues have increased substantially. "As a result," the NFL statement said, "under the terms of the current agreement, the clubs' incentive to invest in the game is threatened."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.