ATLANTA – Owners don’t want to pay the players. Players don’t want to take less money. Fans don’t want to pay more money to either side, period.
While the three most important factions in the business of the NFL tend to be at odds, one thing they can all agree on may eventually lead to a solution to long-term labor problems.
They all hate the exhibition season. By shortening that part of the schedule and lengthening the regular season, the NFL is considering a solution to its upcoming negotiations with the NFL Players Association over an extension of the collective bargaining agreement.
The CBA and the related economics of the game reared their ugly mug Tuesday morning, when the 32 owners voted unanimously to opt out of the agreement. The decision leaves only three years remaining on the CBA, including the final uncapped 2010 season.
What goes with the opt out is the potential for a lockout of the players in 2011 and all sorts of difficult rules regarding free agency (players must wait six years to qualify for free agency and each team gets the option of using two franchise player designations) in an uncapped year.
It’s a dizzying array of rules that leave most fans tearing off their favorite team jersey and screaming, “I just want to watch some football.” Or, in the worst world, anxiously asking, “Who do I take with the No. 1 pick in the fantasy football replacement draft?”
Enter the idea of a 17th game, which could be an aid to everyone concerned, particularly all the people who tire of the tedium of games that don’t count. Count Denver owner Pat Bowlen in that group.
“I’ll put it to you this way, I think that the preseason is too long,” Bowlen said, echoing a nearly unanimous feeling in and around the NFL. “Four games is too many. Whether that works as a solution to our labor issues, I don’t know. But it is too long.”
The NFL agrees with that point and Commissioner Roger Goodell said such a concept could be part of the solution.
“We actually are looking at that as one alternative,” Goodell said. “We are going to report to the ownership today on our preseason, and what we can do to improve the quality of our preseason. We think that they may impact on some of the things we want to talk to the players about, so that’s on the table.”
While NFL teams already require season ticket holders to purchase tickets for exhibition games, adding a 17th game to the schedule would increase the potential for television revenue because the league would have more games to sell.
“Well, it would create new revenue. The thought process was that we might reduce the preseason by a game in return for that,” Goodell said. “Actually the players will still play the same number of games, but it may give us the opportunity to put higher quality football out there. We are not satisfied with the quality of the preseason right now. We’d like to improve on that.”
The catch in that statement is that the NFL Players Association would want its share of the added revenue. Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a problem, although NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw wondered aloud during a conference call about that subject.
“In any discussion we’ve had about playing another game … they don’t want to pay for it. We’re not going to agree to play extra games and not get paid for it,” Upshaw said.
Playing an extra game adds injury risk to a game already fraught with physical attrition. Goodell said the league would also entertain the idea of expanding rosters to deal with the added injuries.
Still, anything that adds revenue, increases player salaries and adds entertainment value is likely to be welcome to everyone involved. Particularly when the alternative is labor strife.
“This is something that could help avert that, so that’s one of the advantages of playing an extra game,” Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney said. The only substantial downside to Rooney is that a 17-game schedule would bring an imbalance to the home-away schedule.
“From a competitive standpoint, we have a perfect situation right now,” Rooney said. Goodell said the issue could be addressed by alternating the home-away assignment of the game every year by conference.
But the most important element of an extra game is the potential for goodwill and more revenue at a time when the NFL risks alienating fans with stories about economic and labor issues.
“Fans don’t want to hear about the problems of a bunch of people who are either wealthy or rich,” one league source said. “This news isn’t good for any of us. You can’t avoid it, but it’s about a bunch of stuff that makes the everyday fan really angry, especially in this economy.”
Worse is that this situation figures to carry on for two years. Upshaw said he believes the deadline to get an extension completed is March 2010, before the beginning of free agency and before the uncapped year is supposed to kick in.
Both Upshaw and Goodell agreed that deadlines are usually the only time when real action takes place. In short, that could mean two years of fans hearing about labor doom, lockouts and other annoying subjects.
By contrast, those fans could be talking about the impact of a 17th game on the regular season.
No doubt, that would be far more interesting.