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Update on new CBA negotiations

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The clock keeps ticking, but are we getting any closer?

NFL Labor Agreement Signed Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

For the third week in a row, the most comprehensive report I can find on the current CBA negotiations is from Pro Football Rumors. I’m not sure why, but these guys just seem to be working harder to report this story than anyone else I routinely keep up with.

The time frame for this agreement has gone from being measured in months, to weeks, and now, really, to days. I’ve always looked at 18 March as the “drop dead date” that needs to be met or face the possibility of a setback as a lot changes at 4 p.m. that day, but this latest report adds some details about time frames to earlier reports, and those details indicate that the unofficial, non-formal, “rough” deadline for finalization of the new CBA may be a little closer than I had been thinking.

Previously I had read that an election would be held “sometime in March” to select new leadership for the player’s union, with the strong possibility of getting a new NFLPA president who is not supportive of the deal negotiated by the present leadership. The new NFLTR report puts more specific dates on the election.

The NFLPA will elect a new president between March 7-10. Russell Okung is running for the post Eric Winston is vacating, and his election may well stall CBA talks. He is against expanding to a 17-game season.

I’ve been reading for over a year that the primary driver for getting the new agreement in place quickly and smoothly is the desire to get to work on negotiating or extending TV deals before the current ones conclude. The NFLTR report reiterates the importance of these deals, and goes on to explain that, because of the revenue sharing in place in the form of the salary cap, the player’s union is as motivated as the owners to get a deal done soon.

[T]he next round of TV contracts represents the more pivotal item on the league’s to-do list. Those contracts are not up after this season, but both the league and the NFLPA want those contracts done soon, the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton reports.

NFL ratings rose last season, and the owners and players would like to capitalize on that momentum this year — before any potential ratings dips blunt it. A CBA not being finalized in the next few weeks — before the election of a new NFLPA president and the new league year opening March 18 — increases the chances of a 2021 work stoppage.

The point here is that the NFLPA and the owners may have a common interest in the smooth transition from the current (2011) CBA to the new agreement ahead of the start of the new league year on 18 March.

Ratings are important in TV deals, as everyone knows, and there is concern that the 2020 ratings may not stack up as well as they did in 2019.

People familiar with the CBA talks indicate the sides want to have this resolved, because 2020 presidential debates threaten to interfere with perhaps multiple NFL viewing windows, Beaton notes. NFL ratings fell during the 2016 election lead-up.

There is one item in this report that I find puzzling. Specifically, it indicates that owners have resisted an increase in the minimum salaries.

[P]layers are not yet satisfied with the league’s terms for the next CBA’s minimum salaries. The 2020 minimum for rookies would $510K under the current CBA. The highest league minimum, for veterans with 10-plus seasons’ worth of service time, sits at just more than $1MM.

I’ve said many times that the salary cap represents the players staking a claim for their cut of the revenue. Once the formula is agreed, that money belongs to the players, and there’s close to nothing that the owners can do to change that. The amount of money paid to each player in his contract is simply the process by which the players’ share of the money is divided up.

I can’t think of any good reason why the owners would resist a rise in the minimum salaries. It is, after all, basically the players’ money. If they want to divide it up a little differently, I don’t know why the owners would be against that.

When I see items like this reported, I tend to see this as a bargaining ploy — a situation where the owners resist giving in on something that they don’t really care about, just so they can give it as a (meaningless) concession late in the process when they want to get a “win” on something important. I have every expectation that a significant rise in minimum salaries will find its way into the final agreement if gets done before 18 March.

The true wildcard seems to have been under-reported for the most part, probably because no one really knows how to analyze it yet. The new CBA will almost certainly be in place for ten years. During that decade, legalized gambling in the US is expected to undergo phenomenal growth in scope and value. Revenue from gambling will likely find its way into NFL coffers. The manner and the amount are largely unknown at this point (or, at least, largely invisible in terms of public discussion), but the players will want their share of the cash when it comes in. The wording of the new agreement will be critically important to how the money gets accounted for and distributed over the coming several years.

Consider this from Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer:

The urgency to get a new CBA from the owners is, first and foremost, about starting to work on new broadcast deals. Once they get new TV deals done, then they can work on monetizing gambling. Add it up, and it’s easy to see why some owners have privately started to say that a labor conflict isn’t worth getting mixed up in. Because the CBA is, and I have heard this specific phrasing attached to it, small potatoes compared to what the league believes will come next.

It seems clear that all parties involved have reason to want the deal done, and done very soon. Reading the phrasing of the SI report, it seems as if, in one sense, the CBA is not a monumentally important document that will set the direction of the league for the next decade, but a bit of housekeeping that needs to be taken care of so everyone can get onto the stuff that will bring in the real money.

It’s almost enough to make me wonder if the threat of Russell Okung replacing Eric Winston and derailing the process isn’t just a bogeyman agreed to by both owners and players, with full agreement of Okung himself, in an effort to motivate players to vote for quick agreement to the proposed new CBA in the coming weeks.

If the NFLTR report is credible, then we should NOT expect a vote this week. Citing Breer again, they say that there are still details that players are not satisfied with.

But the clock is ticking, and those who care are counting the days.