Owners not unified on locking out players

By Jason Cole, Yahoo! Sports 5 hours,

[url="http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=AiS9UARDf9KYOBLi3gcgjxpDubYF?slug=jc-nolockout090810"]http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=A ... kout090810[/url]

The notion of NFL owners locking out players after the upcoming season has been treated like a foregone conclusion to many members of the NFL Players Association and the media.

To some who understand the inner workings of the league, a lockout may become a far-flung option.

According to numerous team, league and union sources, there is a very good chance that by the end of the 2010 league year (late February/early March), the owners may decide that continuing to play under the current rules of the collective bargaining agreement isn’t such a bad idea. That current system includes no salary cap for either minimum or maximum spending, meaning approximately one-third of the league will enjoy great profits by keeping down the payroll for players. Thus, if owners simply continue to bargain with the union for another year, the rules of the current system continue to be played until the sides reach impasse. Even then, the owners could then implement a system that’s pretty much the same as the current one.

Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown hinted at that possibility when he said in late July that he didn’t expect there to be a lockout. Brown is also a member of the powerful NFL Management Council Executive Committee, the group that essentially oversees the negotiations.

“I just think we have to be patient. Both sides want the same thing which is an agreement,” Brown said prior to the Bengals opening training camp. “I think there will be an agreement but that’s in hands other than mine. I have to be like you – sit and watch and wait.

“We’re aware that there’s a threat and we have tailored certain things to meet that possibility, but in my heart of hearts I just think we’re going to be out there playing.”

One team executive was more succinct.

“I would say that your instincts on this are pretty good,” said the executive, who runs one of approximately 10 teams that figures to play for less than $110 million in cap-style accounting. That’s less than the $112.1 million minimum for team spending in 2009.

Said another team executive: “I think we all get caught up in the idea that there’s going to be all-out war between management and labor. It sounds good and there are certainly people who talk a big game about that when there’s no risk … but reality is a little more sobering.”

Of course, there is a healthy share of owners on the other side who believe that a lockout is a must to force a real resolution.

“I think there’s no question you’d have to do something strong to make sure you brought the sides together, get this thing solved,” an owner said. However, that owner was from one of the approximately 10 teams who are expected to spend more than $130 million in cap-style accounting. That’s more than the $128 million maximum allowed in 2009.

In other words, what owners figure to have by the end of this season is disunity, and that is one of several reasons why a lockout is unlikely.

Or as one NFL executive pointed out: “There are going to be plenty of teams that don’t spend a lot in the uncapped system, they’re going to be competitive because they’ve been smart about their players and they’re going to say at the end of the year, ‘Hey, what’s the problem?’

“All of a sudden, all those owners who were talking big about locking out the players aren’t going to have the support they used to have.”

Beyond that, there are a few other factors:

• Lost revenue: While much has been made of the fact that owners could receive advances on their television contracts (the union is currently fighting this), the loss of other partnerships during a lockout could be troublesome.

“If there’s a question about whether the league is going to play, a lot of sponsors could disappear or go other places while we’re not playing,” a league source said. “It’s not that you’re going to lose them forever, but if you start to see that line on the income side of the ledger start to drop, that’s going to be troubling. Right now, we’re climbing when it comes to revenue, even in a bad economy. You don’t want to lose that momentum.”

• Perception: At a time when many fans are struggling under the weight of a bad economy, a labor conflict between billionaires and millionaires is going to go over about as well as open mayonnaise under Florida’s summer sun. With the NFL expecting in-stadium attendance to drop for the third consecutive year, it’s not exactly time to anger the paying customers.

• Save on benefits: In an uncapped year, teams are not required to pay benefits (medical and such) to players. On average, that saves eacm team $10 million.

Still, the overriding factor is that the current system works well, for now. In the early years of the salary cap, owners feared that if there was no longer a cap, some teams would outspend other teams by outlandish sums, buying up all the talent and creating a baseball-like situation where high-spending teams consistently win. Instead, over the past three years, the cap has accelerated faster than salaries for players could increase, particularly for really good players. That was part of the reason that the NFLPA put in a higher minimum spending floor in 2006.

Still, salaries have not kept up.

“You had some teams that couldn’t spend enough to keep up the last couple of years,” a general manager said. “We all know that the star players deserve to get paid whatever they can get. Nobody has a big problem with that. When you have players who are just guys making $7 or $8 million a year, that’s when you sit back and say, ‘Wait a second, what are we doing?’ ”

Of course, the NFLPA has to keep pounding the drum that there is going to be a lockout because that’s the worst-case scenario for players. Owners also don’t mind that threat hanging over the heads of the players, hoping it might entice the union to agree to a deal.

But the truth is that a lockout may be far from a reality.