With millions of people glued to NFL games on TV every fall weekend, the league's broadcast rights are worth billions of dollars - even if the ongoing labor dispute with the players' union wipes out the 2011 season.
The union contends over $4 billion in TV, digital and wireless revenue was carved out by the owners as a financial cushion in case of a lockout, and they want that money escrowed so it can’t be held as leverage against them in collective bargaining talks.
The NFL argues it shrewdly maximized the revenue for all to share back in 2009 and 2010, and that lockout protection has been a normal part of broadcast contracts – the league’s economic engine – for years.
The two sides took their fight before a federal judge in Minneapolis on Thursday, a potentially critical issue just one week before their current labor contract expires.
U.S. District Court judge David Doty in Minneapolis, who has had jurisdiction over NFL labor matters since a 1993 settlement he presided over that paved the way for the existing free-agency system, unsealed some documents in the case with financial details redacted in many cases.
Doty did not rule, however, on the NFL Players’ Association appeal of a special master’s decision earlier this month that lets the league keep the $4 billion or so in broadcast rights fees. (Networks would get a refund with interest if games are lost.)
Doty said he didn’t want to put his “thumb on the scale of the collective bargaining” process, as NFL attorney Gregg Levy contended union lawyers are asking. Levy said “it would be repugnant to federal labor law” for Doty to intervene in this issue.
NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler countered that it’s the league’s “thumb on the scale” in the labor talks, saying the billions in leverage was part of a long-devised lockout plan and that the NFL didn’t act in good faith.
“We’d like the thumb removed,” Kessler said.
The collective bargaining agreement expires next Thursday. Lawyers for both sides, citing a gag order, declined to comment on the negotiations as well as how the case could affect the talks.
In the first real indication of what’s been going on in the labor negotiations in between the NFL and the players’ union, the federal mediator overseeing talks said the two sides made “some progress” during more than 40 hours spread over seven consecutive days of face-to-face meetings, but “very strong differences remain.”
The league and union will resume mediation Tuesday, less than 72 hours before the old collective bargaining agreement is set to expire. If there’s no new deal in place by the end of next Thursday, the union thinks owners will move to lock out players, threatening the 2011 season. The NFL has said, however, the deadline could be extended.
NFL head coaches and assistants could lose up to 50 percent of their salaries in 2011 if there is a lockout – depending on the team and the coach – and that might not even be the worst part. Some lockout clauses in coaches’ contracts say they can be terminated immediately. Cincinnati cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was sentenced to probation and 200 hours of community service under a plea deal for his role in a 2007 strip club melee in Las Vegas. Jones received a suspended sentence and was also ordered to receive anger-management counseling. The sentence requires Jones to undergo random drug testing. Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil has signed his one-year tender worth more than $10 million as a non-exclusive franchise player.