Television networks and, by extension, viewers who have cable systems with NFL games, are backing the owners in the current dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement.
The networks have agreed to pay owners approximately $4 billion to cover their operating costs during a lockout. In theory, the owners would repay it when play resumes, but it might only be a part of the next agreement.
Earlier this year, the NFL Players Association lost a bid to have this money placed in escrow until the dispute is settled when Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled in favor of the owners.
The NFLPA then filed an action in federal court with District Judge David Doty, who has had jurisdiction over NFL labor issues since he brokered the deal in 1993 that brought free agency and a salary cap to the NFL. Both sides have agreed to keep silent on the case until Judge Doty rules, probably before the current CBA expires on Thursday at 8:59 p.m.
It is not surprising that networks would side with owners because they negotiate with the NFL commissioner, currently Roger Goodell, and league commissioners in any sport represent owners, not players.
The NFL is a very reliable product for networks, especially the Sunday games when viewership is otherwise low. During the season, the weekly ratings are usually topped by an NFL game, and sometimes, the Sunday and Monday night games earn huge numbers.
And, of course, the Super Bowl is a huge television event, by far the most popular show of any year, and now with an international audience as well.
So, networks want to keep the golden goose pumping out those eggs. They aren’t bothered by the fact that it may be a diluted product if owners put out replacement players in fall.
This gives the owners tremendous leverage because they will have the money to pay their bills. Players get most of their salaries during the season but many of them are owed bonuses in the offseason, which they can’t collect if there’s a work stoppage. Medical benefits are also cut off.
I’m sure viewers are not aware of their part in this, but subscribers to cable systems which include NFL games are indirectly supporting the owners. Cable subscribers were not repaid for games they lost in strikes-lockouts in baseball, football, basketball and hockey from 1993 on. If there are any canceled games or games of lesser quality because replacement players are used you can bet they won’t be repaid this year, either.
Unfortunately, the only way viewers could protest this is by dropping their systems, which they won’t do because they’d be punishing themselves. Frankly, I don’t think many fans really care who “wins” this dispute. They just want the games to continue.
If Judge Doty were to rule favorably on the NFLPA argument, I think it would hasten an agreement on a new CBA because the owners couldn’t use the TV money to finance a lockout.
If he doesn’t, the owners will just dig in their heels. These negotiations are not about right or wrong, but about leverage. With the TV money in hand, owners have the leverage, so they’ll get what they want.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday: Collective bargaining agreement expires at 8:59 p.m.
April 28-30: NFL draft, the last NFL activity provided no new CBA is reached
Late July: Teams scheduled to report to training camp
Early September: Regular season scheduled to begin