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Countdown To No Kickoff: Next Football Season Hostage To Owners' Demands

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WASHINGTON -- The National Football League's 32 owners are hurtling toward a March 4 deadline, giving every indication that they plan to lock out the players and stadium employees, potentially jeopardizing the next season in an effort to extract an extra billion dollars per year for themselves and require the players to put in two extra regular season games. The move comes after the owners have managed to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers to build and maintain stadiums for their private businesses.

With the exception of Green Bay, which is collectively owned by community members and run as a nonprofit, the other 31 teams are privately owned, meaning that the NFL's lucrative business generates an extraordinary amount of money for a handful of men.

The owners are claiming that they need an extra billion dollars to make it worthwhile to invest in the upkeep of the stadiums and other facilities. The players say they are more than willing to help make those investments, but, like all investors, they want a cut of the returns and they want to see the owners' books to verify their claims of impoverishment.

There's reason for suspicion. The owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, for instance, is insisting that he needs the extra money from the players to maintain the team's stadium. "The investments that need to be made to keep the stadium and our other facilities in first-class condition require an economic system that fairly allocates financial reward and risk," said Bengals owner Mike Brown in an October letter explaining the team's position to progressive advocacy group Progress Illinois.

Problem is, the Bengals don't pay for those investments. The local taxpayers do. The stadium was entirely a gift from taxpayers to the team. The lease requires taxpayers to pay the costs of routine maintenance and upgrades, which amounted to $10.2 million over the past decade, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. And now the Bengals want four times as much from taxpayers for the next decade.

Listening to the owner's argument, one would think he was footing the bill himself.

"Our stadium has repeatedly been recognized as one of the finest venues in the league, and we are very proud for what it means to our fans, our players and our community. Like any facility of its size and complexity, our stadium needs ongoing maintenance and improvement," he wrote, skipping over the part about who paid for it, adding that the community should be grateful that the team still plays where it does. "Even though the Bengals operate in one of the smallest communities in the NFL, and in an area that has been hit hard by the recession, we have maintained our commitment to provide fans with the highest-quality football in an outstanding setting."

Some of the fans remain unconvinced of the high-quality claim, as well. "The community is fed up with the Bengals. They don't try to put a winner on the field," Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune told HuffPost, noting that the team has had a losing record in 19 of the last 21 seasons. People are fed up, he said, by an "ownership that feels like it did the community a favor by playing ball here."

Hamilton County taxpayers are reminded of their generosity to the Bengals each time they pay a half-cent sales tax surcharge that is dedicated to paying for the stadium and its maintenance. With revenue declines as a result of the recession that followed 9/11 and the downturn following the financial crisis, tax receipts are no longer covering the county's bills -- the type of risk that Mike Brown was referring to.

"I don't want to get in the middle of their labor dispute, but the problem is the financial model that the NFL has actively pursued, that the ownership of teams have been willing co-conspirators to, that has put a gun to head of taxpayers to foot the bill for costs that ought to be born by private enterprise," Portune said.

Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young introduced a resolution expressing the council's outrage at the Bengals' request of even more subsidies for its business. "[I]n order for Hamilton County to fund this level of improvements, it would have to raise taxes or potentially cut funding for hospitals, public safety and other vital public services, none of which is reasonable or appropriate to impose on the citizens of the City of Cincinnati or Hamilton County who have provided the Bengals with such a significant public subsidy for nearly 20 years that has helped to make the Cincinnati Bengals one of the most profitable franchises in the National Football League."

Young said the resolution will see a vote next week. "It seems to me unconscionable for them to ask the city to pay for things they can obviously afford themselves," he said.

With taxpayers tapped out, the owners are turning to the players.

The owners want a bigger slice of the profit pie. If they don't get it, they will lock the players out, preventing them from getting on the field. It's not a strike: Just like factory owners would chain the door to keep out union workers, NFL owners will lock shut the door on the 2011-2012 season.

In a Tuesday op-ed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who represents team owners, conceded that it is only the owners who are making demands, but tried to flip the situation upside down. He argued that the fact that players aren't making demands is evidence of owners' impoverished situation.

"The union has repeatedly said that it hasn't asked for anything more and literally wants to continue playing under the existing agreement. That clearly indicates the deal has moved too far in favor of one side," Goodell wrote.

The owners have two key demands: They want an extra billion dollars of the roughly $9 billion revenue pie that is the NFL, and want an additional two regular season games. The owners say they need the extra billion for upkeep and "professional fees" for legal and other services (fees that would presumably go to cover owner lawsuits against the elderly who can no longer afford season tickets or small alternative newsweeklies that run articles critical of ownership).

The owners also want to limit pay to unproven rookies, many of whom just finished playing for free for four or five years for a lucrative college program. The players' union is willing to concede this, to an extent. But the average NFL career lasts only three-and-a-half years, meaning the owners want to take a big chunk from nearly a third of a player's typical career.

The owners want to replace two of four preseason games with regular-season games, which players oppose: They say two more games will increase injuries at a time when player safety is ostensibly a paramount concern of the league's.

The league has been preparing for this lockout for years, the players say, noting that the owners hired the same attorney who led the NHL lockout and has instructed teams to include provisions in contracts that reduce or eliminate pay in the event of a lockout. The NFL has been similarly adept negotiating with the television networks and the owners will get paid even if the games aren't played. Last year, roughly two-thirds of the 100 most-watched television shows were individual NFL games, said George Atallah, a top NFL Players Association official.

"We didn't get here yesterday. The league has taken steps to prepare for a lockout for almost three years now," Atallah told HuffPost.

The union also been preparing, encouraging players to be ready for paychecks to stop and health insurance to be cut.

Star players are involved in the union: Aaron Rodgers, the Super Bowl MVP, is the Packers' union representative; Drew Brees is on the union's executive committee; Peyton Manning has been personally involved in negotiations and is an alternate rep for the Colts. More starting quarterbacks serve as player representatives today than at any other time in the union's history.

Meanwhile, city officials across the country are letting team owners know that a lockout would damage local economies.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in his letter that he takes no position on the contract negotiations, but that a lockout would "hurt working families in Minneapolis."

"As Mayor of Minneapolis, the city that hosts the Minnesota Vikings, I know that the NFL season has an important economic impact on my city and region. One study has estimated that regular-season games generate $6 million in economic impact, while playoff games generate an additional $9 million in economic impact. Directly and indirectly, these dollars support a wide variety of good jobs for workers in the hospitality, hotel and service industries. Minneapolis is one of the leading hospitality and entertainment cities in the country and these jobs are an important part of our overall economic vitality."

Rybak wrote that he was glad players had pledged not to strike and that he wished the league would make a similar pledge not to do a lockout. Other mayors have said the same thing.

"It is clear that the vast popularity and financial success of football means that a lockout cannot be in the interest of anybody involved, particularly the fans, workers or businesses who support the game," wrote Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser to Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado sent an identical letter to Goodell. It continues: "I call upon the owners to announce to the fans that they will not lockout the players. The players already have pledged to not strike. By making the parallel commitment, the owners would create the breathing room for a deal to be struck."

Mayors in Houston, Texas, and Baltimore, Md., have sent similar letters.

Jerry Watson, who owns a bar near the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field, says no games would mean less revenue for his business, the Stadium View Bar & Grill.

"Without the NFL it would cost me a third of my business, and it's going to cost my employees a lot of money," Watson said. "It's going to hurt the state of Wisconsin."

The players' union estimates that having no NFL games would reduce economic activity by $160 million in each city with an NFL team.

An NFL spokesman referred HuffPost to a story by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dubbing the players' union's claim "false," speculating that if people don't spend money going to games, they'll spend it elsewhere. "Attending a professional sporting event is one of many entertainment options in metropolitan areas," the article states, quoting a 2000 study by Dennis Coates and Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "Fans could alternatively go out to dinner and a movie, or bowling, during a sports strike."

HuffPost had asked the NFL if it had any response to the mayors who say their towns will be hurt by a lockout.

"The focus of the clubs is to reach a fair agreement by the March 4 expiration of the CBA," the NFL's spokesman said.

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