Can NFL kill the golden goose?
By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist
The New Orleans Saints hadn’t even begun to properly celebrate their storybook run to a Super Bowl championship when bookmakers installed the team they had just beaten as the favorites to win it all next year. No disrespect for the Saints, but the wise guys in Las Vegas probably figured they would still be suffering from the biggest party hangover ever.
They should be partying in NFL headquarters in New York, too. Not only did the Saints give the league a heartwarming story but the Super Bowl was watched by more people than any program in television history. Not just more than any football game but more than any television program ever, knocking the 1983 finale of “M-A-S-H” out of the top spot.
That capped a strong season which saw mostly full stadiums everywhere except Jacksonville, despite the lingering effects of a brutal recession. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is America’s sport and if anyone had any doubt about that, Jerry Jones has a $1.2 billion stadium in Texas he’d like you to see — for a small fee, of course.
Indeed, these are the NFL’s glory days. The average franchise is worth a billion dollars or so, fans are so loyal they’re willing to pay extortion fees masquerading as personal seat licenses just for the right to buy a season ticket, and what they don’t see in person they’re watching on TV in record numbers.
The players don’t have it bad either. They make, on average, more than a million dollars a year and for the last few years have had a deal with owners that pays them nearly 60 cents of every dollar the league brings in.
On the surface it seems like a perfect marriage. Owners are richer than ever, players are sharing in the wealth, and the league is backed by billions in television contracts that guarantee the party could go on for years.
So why are the two sides seemingly engaged in a mad rush to get a divorce? Why, the minute after one of the most intriguing Super Bowls ends, does the talk have to turn to an uncapped year and the increasingly real possibility of a lockout that could cripple the sport in 2011?
Greed, of course. Times are good on both sides, but both sides would like times to be even better.
The owners resent all the guaranteed money flowing to players, and are determined to roll back the payouts they agreed to in the current contract. The players, meanwhile, resent having to work in a system where no one gets contracts guaranteed past one year and where player rights aren’t near what they are in baseball.
The two sides spent Super Bowl week doing a lot of posturing, though no one paid much attention because there was a game to talk about. With an uncapped year looming, though, the once unthinkable possibility that there could be no NFL season in 2011 is suddenly something to start thinking about.
Union chief De Maurice Smith seems to believe it is not only possible, but inevitable.
“On a scale of 1 to 10,” Smith said last week, “it’s a 14.”
If it does happen it will be because of owners like Baltimore’s Steve Bisciotti, who warned last week that many NFL teams are struggling to stay in the black and that some are having cash flow problems.
“I’ve got partners out there right now whose teams are making less money than their linebackers,” Bisciotti said. “I think we’ve got an acute problem here with the general profitability of the teams.”
The Ravens apparently aren’t one of those teams, with Forbes magazine estimating the team made $44 million in 2008. And, while Bisciotti may not like the cash flow of his business, Forbes estimates the Ravens are worth about $500 million more than what Bisciotti paid for the team just 10 years ago.
Unfortunately, both sides seem to be digging their heels in early and show no signs they’re willing to compromise on the core issues. If next season is played out with no salary cap and the collective bargaining agreement expires, a lot of people in football think it’s likely owners will stage a lockout of players and possibly create replacement teams like they did during the last labor stoppage in 1987.
So enjoy the feel-good story of the Saints. Be thankful that there’s another season to be played with relative labor peace.
But be prepared for things to get ugly after that.