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The proposal being floated by the National Football League for the 2012 season sounds reasonable enough, in theory: Eliminate two of four preseason "exhibition" games and lengthen the real season to 18 games, from 16.

This "enhanced season" seems good for fans, especially season-ticket holders. They won't be stuck paying for two meaningless games with only token appearances from the teams' star players. Instead they'll have two more chances to watch first-stringers playing in games that count.

But the proposal is more than that. It's a big bargaining chip in a roiling labor negotiation that could well make the NFL go dark next year.

It's one part -- and an important one -- of negotiations between the NFL and its players' union about the economic future of the sport.

For team owners, facing a recession, a drop-off in sponsorship revenues, lagging corporate and suite sales and dwindling appetite for public financing of NFL stadiums, it's a way to boost profits. But for the work force -- the players -- the plan has raised concerns about increased injury, fair pay and what they'll get out of it in contract bargaining.

The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association runs out at the end of the 2010 season, and without an extension, all bets are off for football in 2011.

Determined to forge a new economic system, the NFL and its teams have taken steps to lock out the players if they don't make a deal. The league has entered into television contracts that continue to pay even in the event of a lockout (although that money is deducted from later seasons). It has hired the lawyer who guided the National Hockey League through its lockout in 1994. And NFL teams are inserting clauses in coaching contracts that call for reduced salaries or even furloughs in the event of a lockout in 2011.

But the enhanced season issue could potentially be the impetus for a new agreement, and for NFL football in 2011.

There may be carping about the hardships of the extra games now, but watch: It will dissipate in a swirl of horse-trading necessary to make a deal.

Some background: The NFL has been looking under every rock for new and improved revenue streams. It has allowed practice jerseys to be used as inventory for sponsors for the first time and opened up once-off-limits licensing deals with state lotteries and liquor labels. At the same time, it trying to lower what is far and away its largest expense: player payroll.

Players are now paid in weekly installments through the 16-game season. For example, a player making $1.6 million receives a $100,000 check for every game. With the enhanced season, players and their union want prorated checks for the extra two games.

But the owners say it's not as simple as that. They say that the revenue from the two added games would be part of overall league revenue, from which the players already receive a negotiated share.

That share is used to compute the salary cap, which teams use, in turn, to negotiate individual player contracts. And those contract numbers don't change, no matter how many games are played. Presumably, the added revenue would work out to the players' benefit, in the form of a higher salary cap and more negotiable dollars for each team to use. But it would not be as clear-cut as two extra game checks.

Players have other reasons to be wary. The average NFL career is brutally short -- barely three years -- and a longer season likely will shorten that "playing life" even more. Players are justifiably worried about how the enhanced season would affect their health, pensions and prospects for long-term care.

Remember, pro football is not just a contact sport; it is a collision sport. This plan would add many more collisions. Potential injuries will be front and center in discussions over the enhanced season, but make no mistake: It's really all about the collective bargaining.

In 2006, NFL owners voted 30-2 to extend the collective bargaining agreement. Soon after the ink was dry, however, they decided they needed better terms and -- as the agreement allows -- opted to end the deal early. It's now set to expire after this season.

Negotiations to avoid a lockout in March have so far been futile, with NFL teams claiming financial hardship with rising payroll costs.

To that, the union has said, "Show us your books!" The NFL has refused.

Here's how the enhanced season can be a game-changer in these stalled negotiations:

The NFL, in its quest to roll back the 2006 agreement, wants to cut the percentage allocated to the playerst somewhere between 9 percent to 18 percent, according to various reports. The union is balking but looking for a way to find common ground.

My bet? The NFL will present a proposal including the 18-game season and a more modest rollback of the percentage share allocated to players from the previous collective bargaining agreement. Or it might seek no reduction at all, offering the same percentage as before -- on the condition that players accept the longer season. This could be the breakthrough issue.

We may continue to hear complaints about the 18-game season from players -- stars such as Ray Lewis and Brian Dawkins have been among the most outspoken -- and perhaps even the union. At the end of the day, though, they will deal.

 

Follow Andrew Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/adbrandt