The clock is on owners’ side


Disputes between players and management threaten the seasons of two premier U.S. pro sports enterprises

The NFL is in full lockdown (or lockout) mode; the NBA might follow suit once the Finals are done and its labor agreement expires. Players and team owners in both sports say publicly they want an agreement, but the reality is any accord in either sport may be quite a way down the road. No one has indicated much willingness to give on major talking points, which could mean that for the first time, two major sports could be shut down by labor discord at the same time. The big question for fans: Will games be lost? The NFL season is three months away; the NBA five months. Sam Farmer and Mark Heisler raise the questions and fill in some of the blanks of what lies ahead. C3





May 16: The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the NFL’s motion for a stay, allowing the league to keep the player lockout in place at least until June 3, when the court will hear the NFL’s appeal of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s order to restart football operations.


Key date: It’s tempting to say June 3, when the 8th Circuit will hear oral arguments in the NFL’s appeal of the lockout-lifting decision in District Court. But it’s likely to take at least two weeks for that three-judge panel to issue a ruling, so a better key date is three weeks before the Sept. 8 kickoff game between New Orleans and Green Bay -- say Aug. 15. At a minimum, teams would need that much time to train for the start of the season. If camps are still closed at that point, you can bet games will either be pushed back or scrubbed.

Point of no return: How many game cancellations are too many? In the strike-shortened 1982 season, teams played nine games. When the players went on strike in 1987, teams wound up playing 15 games, but three of those were with replacement players. If eight or more games are canceled this year, what’s the point?

When will the league cave? The average player has a career that lasts 3 1/2 years; the owners are looking at the horizon, as they’ll have to live with the next labor agreement for a long time. The owners, therefore, aren’t likely to cave at any point, but -- in the unlikely scenario they lose in the 8th Circuit -- will slog along in the courts, all the while continuing to cut paychecks to the players.

When will the players cave? If the owners win in the 8th Circuit, the players could cave in late August or early September, when they either have lost that first game check or are in danger of losing it. It’s important to watch what happens in the so-called lockout-insurance case, which the players won at the district level and should bar the owners from using any money paid by networks in the event of game cancellations. Still, it could take years to sort through that, and who knows if those damages (still being decided) will actually be paid or will be handled in the eventual collective-bargaining talks. Regardless, if it gets to September and no leverage-shifting court decisions are in the offing, players might choose to settle closer to Week 1 than Week 4.

Biggest issue: How to divide $9.3 billion in annual revenue.

Biggest red herring: That has to be the health and welfare of retired players. Yes, both the NFL and current players say they are very concerned about taking care of the men who helped build the game -- and some people on both sides might well be concerned -- but for the most part, it’s largely lip service with public relations in mind.

Likelihood games will be lost (by percentage): 70%.

Why will the league prevail? Because they have deeper pockets than the players and therefore a greater ability to withstand a lockout, which looks as if it will stand. For many players, missing one or more paychecks would be economically disastrous. It’s also easier to hold together 32 owners than 1,800-plus players with vastly varying bank accounts.

Why will the players prevail? They will win if their litigation strategy works, and the courts agree with their arguments more than the owners’ arguments. Again, the final disposition of the lockout-insurance case matters here.

Who will get the better deal? Owners. Barring some legal surprises, the players will wind up making concessions. They were fine with the CBA as it was, remember. It was the owners who opted out in hopes of a better deal. When this mess is finally sorted out, it won’t be about whether the players make concessions but how many concessions they make.

Final thought: This case will help decide what happens with the NFL in Los Angeles. Team owners haven’t said they’re losing money, just that they aren’t making enough of it. (Of course, they refuse to open their books, either way.) They say the deal they opted out of didn’t allow them to make enough money to justify the investment in new stadiums -- and every L.A. stadium proposal has included the assumption of NFL money. In other words, if the deal isn’t sweet enough for the owners, they will be unlikely to contribute to a new stadium in the Los Angeles area.