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The 2021 CBA: TV rights, happy owners, satisfied players and a prosperous league — or not?

There are continued reports of smooth negotiations between NFL owners and the NFLPA, and budding hopes that combative labor disputes of the past will be avoided this time around - but not everyone is singing the same tune.

NFL Draft Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The New York Times is the latest to report good news about the negotiations between owners and the NFLPA with regard to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The current CBA, which is a 10-year agreement set to expire at the end of the 2020 season, was signed and took effect in 2011 following acrimonious negotiations between the parties that included a short ‘lockout’ and an “uncapped” 2010 season played without the benefit of a CBA being in place.

Executives from the league and the players’ union initiated discussions last month, holding two bargaining sessions that had little of the rancor evident in the last labor dispute, in 2011, when the league tried to claw back roughly $1 billion in revenue from its players and locked them out for four months.

The current deal does not expire until after the 2020 season, but getting a new one would put the league in the strongest possible position to begin negotiations for new contracts with its media partners, who pay the league about $7 billion annually.

While this is essentially a ‘good news’ article for fans, in that it points to a new agreement being signed without industrial action, which could mean parts or all of the pre-season, regular-season or post-season being cancelled, there exists an underlying tone of cynicism from some observers with regard to the owners’ motives and strategies. Additionally, there have been competing news reports, even this week, suggesting that the union is preparing for a lengthy work stoppage.

Chief among the strategic drivers, according to the NY Times article, though, is the league’s desire to move forward with negotiation of its broadcast agreements, which the article suggests will benefit from having a new, and substantially unchanged CBA in place sooner rather than later.

Most of the N.F.L.’s media agreements expire after the 2022 season, and the league has not yet opened negotiations for new contracts. But with the media landscape fracturing and shifting away from the broadcast and cable industries, which have proved so lucrative for the N.F.L., league executives are hoping labor certainty will help deliver another windfall.

So far, digital streaming companies have not shown an appetite to pay the billions of dollars necessary to win an exclusive package of games, and the N.F.L. has resisted selling exclusive rights to one.

According to five traditional and digital media executives, all of whom requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize their relationship with the league, the N.F.L. will be in a strong position when it begins media negotiations, and they expect the league to win large rights fee increases after a season in which ratings rebounded and a new generation of stars emerged. Most media executives said deals could be negotiated even without a firm collective bargaining agreement in place, but the certainty of a long-term labor deal would only strengthen the N.F.L.’s hand.

The NFL is exploring many distribution channels, including network TV, digital platforms like Twitter and others, long-standing cable TV networks like ESPN, and other, less traditional broadcast channels and media.

The most likely contender, according to several media executives, is Amazon, which spends about $65 million annually for digital rights to 11 “Thursday Night Football” games. That is a fraction of the roughly $660 million that Fox pays for a package that includes the same Thursday night games.

Certain broadcast packages could change hands — Disney is reportedly interested in showing Sunday afternoon games on ABC — and Goodell has acknowledged that DirecTV’s popular “N.F.L. Sunday Ticket” out-of-market package could be sold differently.

Another article — this one published by ProFootballTalk — implies that the owners may have benefited more from the 2011 agreement than the players did, putting the league in a position to rather happily sign a similar agreement in the coming months.

This time around, no owner has complained publicly or privately about the CBA. And all that that implies. They’ll say that the current deal works for both sides, which could be code for, “It works really really well for us, and it’s important for them to think the same.”

Indeed, the report from the Times indicates that unnamed people involved in the discussions expect the players to receive a “modest increase” in their share of overall revenue (it must be working really well for the owners, then), and that the agreement to otherwise contain “few major changes.”

The Times article indicates that a key goal of the NFLPA will be to improve the players’ share of the league revenue compared to what they received under the 2011 CBA.

At the first meeting, in Minneapolis last month, both sides set out broad goals, according to people with knowledge of the talks. The owners currently receive about 52 percent of shared revenue. One owner said he did not expect the owners to give up a significant percentage of shared revenue. Another owner said the players would not receive “a percentage point more than 50 percent.”

A move from the current 48.5% to 50% of the league’s revenue, which currently exceeds $8 billion per year, would represent a major ‘win’ for the players’ union, but they may not face that tough a battle to get there. There are some who feel that the players should have gotten a 50/50 split when the current agreement was signed in 2011, and that getting to that split in the current negotiation is quite possible.

Click here to read the article: What should the NFLPA be fighting for in the next CBA?

Still, players will have a hard time finding reason to be terribly upset with the results of the previous negotiation.

Though the players accepted a lower share of overall revenue by certain measures in the last agreement, the salary cap has risen steadily, to $188.2 million in 2019 from $120 million in 2011.

Overall, the salary cap has grown at a strongly since 2013, when it was $123m per team.

Players’ concerns, in addition to getting more of the revenue overall, may revolve around ‘tweaking’ the existing agreement to create more equitable distribution of the salary cap money among active players.

Players are focused on details that would help grow the N.F.L.’s middle class by raising minimum salaries and increasing performance-based bonuses.

Click here to read the article: One more suggestion from OTC: raise the minimum wage for NFL players

Much has been made of the reported good relationship that exists between the Commissioner and the head of the NFLPA.

Helping smooth the talks is the relationship between Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the union. Despite their occasional posturing, Goodell and Smith have a decent relationship.

In addition, the limited tenure of the union’s president, Eric Winston, helps to put a ‘deadline’ on the talks, even if it is a somewhat artificial one.

The union’s leaders want to get a deal done while Eric Winston, its president, is still in office, and not risk a shift in leadership during negotiations. Winston, who won his third term last year, will be president through March 2021.

The Pro Football Talk article published this week spent a bit of time analyzing and ‘reading between the lines’ of the NY Times article.

The desire to not risk a leadership shift understates the smoldering concern, for both sides, that the next NFLPA president will be adamant about pushing for more, about maximizing all available leverage in the quest to do so, about laying the foundation for a strike (even though a strike likely won’t work) by making a wide array of over-the-top demands and by generally taking an unpredictable, illogical, and irrational approach to negotiations, potentially screwing things up for everyone.

Those concerns are real, and those concerns — coupled with the desire to rake in many more billions in TV rights — could be the factors that keep these talks on course for a smooth landing before March of next year.

Whatever the motivations, reports from a variety of sources indicate that the current round of negotiations have started early, are progressing smoothly, and show promise of ending in a fruitful agreement arrived at without the need for contentious and divisive industrial action.

This seems to represent the best case scenario for fans, and if it can take place with happy owners and satisfied players, so much the better.

Hopefully all that comes to pass.

It may not.

While Ian Rappaport and the New York Times print warm and fuzzy stories about good relationships and progress, at least one media source is saying the exact opposite.

Rumblings about an NFL work stoppage have been percolating for months, and NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has reportedly added a new wrinkle to the proceedings.

Per Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal, Smith sent an email to every NFL agent saying that the union is “advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length” when the collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2020 season.

Just 100 days from the NFL’s centennial season, the looming threat of a work stoppage continues to be a hot topic in league circles.

Smith told The MMQB’s Albert Breer two years ago that a lockout before the 2021 season was “almost a virtual certainty.”

Players and agents have expressed their dislike of the NFL’s current CBA, which was agreed upon in 2011.

”The NFLPA absolutely failed the NFL players,” one unnamed agent told the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin in 2013. “It’s the worst CBA in professional sports history. It’s pushing the veterans out of the game and cuts the rookie pay in half. How is that a good deal?”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters last September a lockout is “going to happen.”

I can’’t help but notice that a lot of the support listed in this Bleacher Report article is from 2013, “two years ago”, and last September, while the reports from RapSheet and the NY Times seem to be based on much more current information.

What is troubling about the Bleacher Report article is that it seems to have been triggered by a report this week from Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal, who says that NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has reportedly sent an email to every NFL agent saying that the union is “advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length” when the collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2020 season.

This could be a union executive simply doing his ‘due diligence’ by alerting members that they need to prepare for a work action. It may not be a ‘red flag’, but simply a butt-covering exercise on the advice of a union lawyer. I have to say, if I was a senior union executive who was reading a series of public reports suggesting that negotiations were going smoothly and expectations were for an early agreement without the need for industrial action, I would probably do exactly what Smith is reported to have done; that is, I would write to my members saying that they should ignore recent news reports, stash away some money and get their minds right, because Winter is Coming. Anything less might lead to claims of negligence if negotiations break down or become divisive.

The NFLPA has never been a strong union, and hasn’t really ever been in a position of strength in its negotiations with owners. The very nature of its membership — young men with a very limited window on a career that actually pays them very good money while offering, from a practical standpoint, an almost unlimited upside — makes it difficult to ‘rally the troops’ for a fight against owners.

The vast majority of players are walking cliches: they are just happy to be here; they are living their childhood dreams; they feel blessed; and nearly all of them are making more money than anyone they have ever known has ever thought possible.

While owners are widely viewed as having gotten the best of the players’ union in nearly every negotiation, the NFL Goose has produced so much gold that the players who comprise the NFLPA have very little reason to complain. It’s only by comparison to other major sports such as MLB and the NBA that players can really come to think of themselves as hard done by.

Click here to read the article: Should the NFL adopt a salary cap “amnesty” in the next CBA?

With competing news reports, the future appears to be as difficult to read as tea leaves. The information we have publicly available could mean anything at all.

For my part, I see the recent report about the DeMaurice Smith memo as a routine matter — the type of thing a union exec does when he goes through the standard labor agreement checklist: “Warn members to be ready for anything”. Check.

Smith’s email hardly means that a potential work stoppage is likely. He needs to ensure that all agents and players remain vigilant regarding a potential work stoppage in order to ensure that the players don’t get steamrolled by owners who definitely will be vigilant regarding a potential work stoppage.

At a minimum, the need for vigilance may eventually compel the NFLPA to do something aimed at countering the perception that talks are going well. If it seems they’re going too well, it means that someone may be getting too good of a deal.

The good news reports have been consistent from multiple credible sources, while the one report that the sky is falling seems to be be from BR, and based on one memo to NFLPA members and a few quotes from 2013, 2017 and 2018.

For the moment, I’m feeling quietly confident that things are progressing well, but, as Yogi Berra reminded us, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Stay tuned.