Messing with perfection

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:32 AM ET

In the history of professional sport there has never been an institution the likes of the National Football League. It is the perfect storm.

It has all the ingredients in precise proportion: Massive appeal, lubricated by gambling interest; a pliable union; leadership that understands the importance of parity, both competitive and economic; television revenues that keep exploding into the stratosphere; a social structure that allows tiny Green Bay to compete on a more or less equal footing with mighty New York.

As we all shake our heads in disbelief, trying to comprehend how a multibillion-dollar enterprise like the National Hockey League sits idle -- and will continue to sit idle into the foreseeable future -- because one set of millionaires can't agree with their millionaire employees how to divide the spoils, we look at the NFL and say "There is your model."

Well, of course, we all know the NHL can never be like the NFL. It lacks almost all of the aforementioned ingredients, especially the part about exploding TV revenues.

But enough about the NHL. No amount of discussion outside the corridors of power will solve that mess until somebody blinks.

This could never happen in the NFL, right?

We've come to believe that's true over the years since the 1987 strike that lasted just four weeks. The union folded its hand and the owners have been running to daylight ever since, unfettered by a restrictive collective bargaining agreement and safe, for the past 10 years, from each others' greed under a salary cap.

But it's worthwhile to note that negotiations between the NFL Players' Association and the NFL are underway (they met yesterday in New York) and Gene Upshaw, the union boss, is making noises that indicate he will not be such a tame opponent this time around. The old agreement has been extended several times over the years, but it's not clear that will happen again without some serious concessions.

Right now, every NFL team receives an annual payment of $77 million US in American TV revenue, which is enough to cover virtually all operating expenses without selling one ticket, one parking spot, one hotdog.

Two weeks ago, new contracts were announced with Fox and CBS to take effect in 2006. Others will follow, including ABC and ESPN. When the ink is dry, each team's annual cut will increase to more than $100 million.

Upshaw wants a bigger share of that pie for the players. He says if a new collective bargaining agreement is not in place by March 1, 2005, then it will trigger a clause in the old agreement that abolishes the salary cap after the 2006 season.

It doesn't take an economics major to imagine the meltdown that would occur if that should happen. The combination of almost unlimited financial resources, combined with total free agency, would unleash an unprecedented torrent of greed on both sides.

And the first brick in the NFL's wall that will crumble will be the one that says all teams are equal partners.

Despite the illusion that NFL teams are on an equal footing, the reality is that team revenues are as disparate in football as they are in baseball and hockey.

And local revenue is not factored into the league's revenue sharing policy.

What would probably ensue in a no-cap world is a fight among the rich teams to become the New York Yankees of the NFL.

"The closer we get to the uncapped year, the closer our guys are to saying not to have a cap," Upshaw said. "I sold the cap to the players in the past. I'm not selling it again. If we go through an uncapped year, we'll never have the cap again. The genie will be out of the bottle. That's not a threat, just reality."

The problem for Upshaw, of course, has been the weak-willed players he leads. They do not have a history of solidarity.

But if the NFL and its negotiators are too casual about their dominant position in this relationship, they could be in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

In any case, it's way too early to start writing a eulogy for the death of the NFL as we know it.

If they're smart, and they are, they'll all figure out a way to make it work.

Then again, didn't we used to say that about the NHL? Those dopes are living proof that saner heads don't always prevail.


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