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NFL Annual Meetings End; Trouble Ahead?

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The Overtime Reaction

First, a word about the change in rules for overtime requiring each team to have a chances to possess the ball unless the first team to do so scores a touchdown: boo. Yes, I understand the inequity of teams losing without touching the ball, that kickers are now much more productive, and that statistics show the team that wins the coin toss win the game a disproportionately. So what else is new?

These overtime rules that have existed without vigorous argument for change for many years. What has changed is the fact the NFC Championship was decided with a coin toss, a kickoff return, a pass interference penalty and a field goal. That is what has fueled this fire, not all the statistics that have been there for years. A rule change should be proactive, not reactive. If anyone should have been advocating this rule after what happened, it was the Minnesota Vikings, who lost that game yet voted against the new rule!

Familiar Dissenters

Interestingly, two of the other three teams to vote against adopting the new rule were the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. The last time they were the contrarians a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was passed by a 30-2 margin in 2006. Now the league finds itself trying to roll back that deal, bringing us back to the labor situation.

With the NFL annual meetings ending, the big question is where we will be at the time of the meeting next year? More specifically, will there be a lockout in 2011? Some signs point to that scenario.

Lockout Preparations Underway

NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith believes the owners' intent is to lock out the players, repeating, like the litigator that he is, the two evidentiary points that he has harped on for months:

(1) The NFL 's broadcast deals require full payment through a potentially locked-out 2011 (although those payments are offset against future years in the event of a lockout),

(2) The NFL has hired attorney Bob Batterman to steer it through this process. Batterman guided the NHL through its lockout and has been referred to by the NFLPA as the "lockout lawyer" although that moniker may change as Batterman advised Major League Soccer in its successfully completed CBA this week.

What to do

The NFL clearly wants to slow play this negotiation, seeing no urgency to get a deal done now that the capless year is upon us without any financial peril being experienced by teams. As we anticipated, the real issue of the uncapped year was not the prospect of teams engaging in Steinbrenner-esqe spending, but teams engaging in Florida Marlin-esque spending. The lack of spending, rather than the overspending, will be the issue of the uncapped year of 2010, along with the lack of activity for the talented group of 212 "limbo" restricted free agents.

Goodell has referred to the negotiation with the NFLPA as "in the first quarter", a clear sign that there will be no urgency to getting a new deal until, at the earliest, prior to the 2011 League Year in March. Now a year in and continuing to face an uphill battle against a much-better financed opponent, what can the union do?

Smith has embarked on a public relations campaign to try to paint the owners as the heavy in these negotiations, but that will only have limited impact. Neither the media nor the fans will empathize with either side in a fight over 8.5B of revenue.

Smith, however, can start with a couple steps:

(1) Play goalie and protect what his predecessor, Gene Upshaw and Roger Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, forged in 2006, especially the fact that whatever percentage of revenues allocated to players comes from a calculation of TFR (Total Football Revenues). The change in calculation of player costs from DGR (Designated Gross Revenues) to TFR was a game-changer;

(2) Not debate in public. We've heard a lot about proposals from the league that call for 18% cuts, for different percentages of revenue, for this much and that much. The talk of specific numbers should be for the bargaining table. This is a contract negotiation, just like between a player and a club. Nothing is served by conducting it in public, whether from Smith or players like Kevin Mawae.

(3) Speaking of Upshaw and Tagliabue, Smith must try to develop a personal trust and relationship with Goodell as well as other influential owners such as Jerry Richardson of Carolina, Bob Kraft of New England, and in Smith's hometown, Dan Snyder of Washington, even if it seems forced. Although not on the agenda of this week's meetings, Smith should have been there in a social role at the least. Go out to dinner, bring the wives, develop a rapport to create the foundation for a partnership for both sides.

Perhaps this could be a start to keeping America's most popular sport around a year from now.

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