NFL labor talks: Understanding the negotiations
MONDAY, 07 MARCH 2011 14:19
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
As the representatives from the National Football League ownership group and the National Football League Players Association continue to try and bridge their differences and sign a new collective bargaining agreement (and yes Green Bay Packers players have collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin despite the best efforts of the state's governor to bust public employee unions as Governor Scott Walker told the fake David Koch), it might be useful to review 60 years of television money and players association activity and how closely linked television and the players really are.
NFL owners were planning to use some $ 4 billion in 2011 television rights fees to underwrite a lockout. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (FOX), General Election (now Comcast)'s NBC, Summer Redstone's CBS, the Walt Disney Company's ESPN and DirecTV cozied up to the NFL owners because the owners' product is still a consistently watched fare in an increasing fragmented audience industry — TV.
Television is the “tiger blood” of the NFL. CBS, NBC and ABC were the “Goddesses” that brought the NFL to the masses during an explosive growth spurt between 1960 and 1970. Each one of the NFL owners was a “bi-winner.”
NFL owners and NFL players have been battling over issues since 1956. Today, NFL players get huge salaries but have short careers and unlike their counterparts in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, a NFL players contract is not guaranteed. If a player gets fired, he keeps bonus money but he is terminated with just some severance pay. NFL players need four years to get a pension and five years of medical benefits following a career. The lack of will to fight the owners and just take money now has left some former players financially destitute and in some case contemplating suicide from injuries suffered on the field from Pop Warner through junior high school, high school, college and pro football.
As television contracts got bigger and bigger, so did players salaries but NFLPA negotiators never looked at the future.
In 1950, the three most popular sports in the United States were baseball, boxing and horse racing. National Football league owners were running mom and pop store operations that operated from July to December. Television, as the noted writer Frank Deford explained on a long forgotten TV show that featured this writer and Al Michaels (along with the "Scud Stud" Arthur Kent) on Histories Mysteries, an all inconclusive look at sports history in about 88 minutes on the History Channel in 2000, changed the sports world. By 1965, football was the most popular sport in the United States. The owners had more money than they ever could imagine but the owners still treated players like they did in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
The NFL owners and players had a contentious relationship for decades. The NFLPA formed in 1956 with help from Creighton Miller, the first General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. Unhappy players in Cleveland and Green Bay assembled a network of "player reps" on each team. The players included Don Shula (Colts), Frank Gifford (Giants), and Norm Van Brocklin (Rams) to represent their teams. The Chicago Bears did not have a players representative. The players first meeting was held in New York in the fall of 1956, after the owners ignored the players' attempts to discuss their requests. The players asked for minimum salaries of $5,000 per season, injury pay, uniform per diems, and for teams to supply their own equipment.
Nothing happened but the players got a big break in 1957 when, the first lawsuit involving professional football and antitrust was filed, Radovich v. NFL, which significantly altered player rights within the league. The case involved a player/coach, George Radovich, who sued the league because the NFL effectively prevented him from attaining employment in the NFL or affiliated leagues, such as the Pacific Coast League, which was in existence at the time. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the NFL was exempted from the antitrust laws, and was appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the trial court, holding professional football subject to the antitrust laws.
The Supreme Court of the United States decision changed life for NFL owners. The players could now sue the league on antitrust grounds which they threatened to do. The owners and players settled with the players receiving minimum salaries of $5,000, $50 payment for preseason games, medical coverage for injuries, and a pension.
But the players didn't get what they agreed to and spend the 1958 season chasing the owners to live up to the agreement. The deal was finally signed in 1959.
In 2011, as a fallback, the players will decertify their association and then sue the league on antitrust grounds if an agreement isn't reached soon. Nothing much has changed since 1957.
The truth was that football was a part time vocation and not a real job for either the owners of the players in the 1950s.
When the season ended in the 1950s, so did football as a main vocation. New York fans may have wildly cheered the New York Giants defensive lineman Andy Robustelli on six Sundays a season, but on the Monday after the final game, it was back to work in the civilian world.
"Each player the day that the season was over, you were free and you looked for a job. You wouldn't see each other until next year. I think, and with all respect to the modern ballplayer, I hope the modern ballplayer appreciates, not only the opportunity, but...football is a stepping stone it's not the end of life," said Robustelli , who became a successful businessman in Connecticut once his Giant days were through, in the 1990s.
Robustelli's generation of players didn't put up much of a fight with the owners for pensions and future health benefits. In fact, lots of generations of NFL players never put up much of a fight for pension and health benefits and according to one players agent, there was a reason for that.
"Their constituency is active players and when the crunch comes, no one with status is representing the retired players. So it relies on the good will of the current players, which has been subsumed to selfishness," said the agent. "Football players are the worst labor unit--short playing careers, spectre of injury, coaches kids, born-again Christians, all salary paid from September to January so each game check more impactful, (Joe) Montana and Howie Long and other stars crossed picket line last time (in 1987), no ability to sustain a strike."
The NFLPA has always been weak and the owners knew that. The two leagues may have merged, but the player associations did not, as the players on the 16 NFL teams were NFLPA members and the players on the 10 AFL teams were American Football League Players Association members. This caused a major problem in subsequent negotiations as the NFLPA would come to a tentative agreement with the owners on certain collective bargaining issues (such as minimum salaries, retirement age) then the owners would bargain with the AFLPA, who accepted lower terms, which wasn't good for NFLPA members.
There was a brief lockout and a 20-day strike in 1970 that ended just before the 1970 All Star game and which did not result in the cancellation of regular or post-season games, the NFL and NFLPA signed a four-year contract, the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of the NFL, which raised player salary minimums to $12,500 for rookies and $13,000 for veterans, added dental insurance, improved the pension, gave players the right to have agents, gave players representation on the Retirement Board, and provided for impartial arbitration of injury grievances.
(Retired players from that era are still battling the NFL over injury grievances)
In 1974, the previous CBA was coming to an end. Players were demanding the elimination of the Rozelle Rule and the option clause which kept a player tied to his team in perpetuity unless another team was willing to give up number one draft picks or players to sign a free agent among other things. On July 1, the players went on strike, and were prepared to sit out until a new bargaining agreement was hammered out. The sit-out led to the cancellation of the New York Jets game at New Haven, the first game ever canceled due to a labor impasse. However, by the early part of August, about a quarter of the NFLPA crossed the picket lines, breaking down union solidarity. On August 11, Garvey sent his players back to work after a federal mediator suggested a 14-day cooling off period, instead pursuing the issue through the Mackey case. The 42-day strike ended that day with nothing gained.
On September 21, 1982, NFL players went on strike. It was the longest strike in professional sports in the U.S. at the time and lasted until November 17. The owners responded by locking the players out at the commencement of the strike. During the strike, only 126 of the 224 scheduled regular-season games were played, forcing the league to change the format of post-season play to include 16 teams instead of the usual 10 teams. The players held two "All-Star" games to raise some funding for players without a paycheck. The players got more money but two goals were not met, a form of free agency and more pension money.
NFL owners won the 1987 battle with the players but the two sides ended up in Judge David Doty's courtroom in 1993 after the association decertified. They came up with a deal because of pressure from Judge Doty. Eighteen years later, Judge Doty is still involved with the two sides. Apparently Judge Doty disagrees with the owners pocketing network, cable and satellite TV money in 2011 whether the league is locked out or not. There is a question of what happens with that $4 billion. Eventually Judge Doty will decide what to do.
Television and the NFL have had a long history. TV has helped and hurt the league. Today, it is all good but 62 years ago, it was a different story.
The Los Angeles Rams showed all 12 of the team's home and away games on local television in 1949 and saw a sharp decrease in attendance from 1948. In 1950, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell urged teams to blackout home games in an effort to keep the people in the stands for home games instead of in front of the television.
Some teams had TV contracts. The Dumont TV Network paid $75,000 to nationally televise the Los Angeles Rams-Cleveland Browns championship game on December 23, 1951. By 1953, the NFL was in the courtroom defending its blackout policy. Judge Allan K. Grim of the U. S. District Court in Philadelphia upheld the league's blackout policy and did not violate anti-trust laws.
The 1957 NFL Championship Game was blacked out in the host city, Detroit, despite being a sellout. The blackout policy was challenged again in 1962 when the Giants hosted Green Bay in the NFL Championship at Yankee Stadium Judge Edward Weinfeld of the U. S. District Court upheld the NFL position and denied an injunction, which would have forced CBS to televise the game in the New York City area.
“That was a big test case for us,” said Mara of the 1953 courtroom proceedings. “I think the big value of TV was the promotion that it should what a great event this was; what a great game this was. It made people want to come to the ball park, or go up to Stratford, Connecticut to see it on TV.”
New York Giant fans who could not get tickets to the sold out Yankee Stadium would travel to Fairfield County, Connecticut and either rent hotel rooms or go to bars and/or restaurants to watch blacked out home games on WTIC, Channel 3 out of Hartford. Blacked out games meant money six, seven or eight times a year to Connecticut businesses.
The blackout policy would remain in effect until 1973, when Congress passed experimental legislation (only valid until 1976) requiring any NFL game that was declared a sellout 72 hours prior to kickoff be made available for local TV.
Television would play a role in the Bidwill family's move of their Cardinals franchise in 1960. The NFL also permitted the Cardinals to relocate to St. Louis for the 1960 season, in an effort to eliminate the market-cannibalization taking place between the Cardinals and the Bears in Chicago, the second largest television market at the time. The Chicago CBS station, which was televising NFL games, needed a solution to the Bears-Cardinals two-market setup. Since the teams never played on television head to head unless they played one another, and the league was blacking out home games, CBS never showed games in Chicago.
On March 13, 1960 the Cardinals moved to St. Louis after receiving $500,000 for "improvements" at Soldier Field, some of the funding coming from CBS. In effect, the Cardinals were not just "allowed" to move to St. Louis, but rather were paid to do so by the Bears, the NFL, and CBS.
The American Football League formed in 1959. It was an eight-team league, which borrowed a business model from the stillborn Continental Baseball League, which was a brainchild of Branch Rickey. The CBL planned to pool TV revenue and divide the money among the league's 12-teams. Rickey's league was working under the assumption that it had an antitrust exemption like the American League and National League in baseball. Lamar Hunt's league must have felt the same way. The AFL had decided on November 23, 1959 to approve a cooperative television plan whereby the league office negotiates the television contract and which proceeds from which were equally divided among member clubs.
By June 9, 1960, the AFL had a TV deal with the American Broadcasting Company. It was a five-year contract with the eight teams sharing $1,785,000 in 1960 and graduated increases of the life of the agreement.
The NFL wanted the same type of network deal but the league had to live with the Sherman Antitrust Act hanging over the league's business practices. That changed on September 30, 1961 with President John F. Kennedy's signature on a bill that allowed the 14-team league to become one entity for television contract negotiation purposes.
In 1960, the New York Giants received $340,000 for their deal, but the Green Bay Packers received $105,000. Rozelle saw the changing playing field and knew the big market teams in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles could get enormous contracts as television grew leaving behind smaller markets such as Pittsburgh and Green Bay.
"My brother Jack (Giants), George Halas (Bears) and Daniel Reeves (Rams), we were the three teams that were most affected," said Giants owner Wellington Mara. "Now, Art Modell (Browns), he had has own deal made already and he surrendered that to go into it.
"He (Modell) was really the one who gave something away. We didn't know what we were giving up. That is what did it. They made the decision. Without that, why we wouldn't have the league we have today."
Rozelle was a genius. He was lucky that the times were favorable but he had to work at getting a diverse group of owners to think league instead of individual fiefdom and he did.
"I think he explained to everybody very cogently what was at stake and he knew it wasn't going to be much of a league with lopsided revenue" Rozelle is a guiding force in the formation of the modern NFL. "We used to laugh a little bit, but we used to say Pete was so smooth and so polished and he had a great sense of public relations, but we always thought in running a league meeting, the softest part about him were his teeth," said Mara with a laugh.
"He knew when to twist an arm, and when to massage an ego and he made great use of that knowledge. He stepped in and from the very first minute, from the very first meeting he ran, he was a leader. He took things over and organized us."
CBS would win rights to NFL games in 1962 with a $4.65 million bid, NC would gain the 1963 AFL Championship Game for $926,000 despite the fact that ABC was the AFL regular season TV right’s holder. CBS would keep the NFL for the 1964 and 1965 seasons as well as the NFL Championship Game by paying $14.1 million per season and $3.6 million for two championship games. Meanwhile NBC guaranteed the future of the AFL by signing a five-year, $36 million contract beginning in 1965.
CBS extended its relationship with Pete Rozelle and the NFL in 1965 through 1967 with a $39.6 million for the 1966 and 1967 regular seasons with an option for 1968. CBS bought the 1966 and 1967 NFL Championship Games for $2 million per game. After the June 8, 1966 merger, the rights to the first four AFL-NFL Championship Games, 1967-70 was sold to both CBS and NBC for $9.5 million. In 1969, CBS passed on Rozelle’s idea of Monday Night Football, ABC acquired the rights to 13 games annually between 1970-72. Monday Night Football would change the NFL as much as the June 8, 1966 merger between the AFL and NFL.
The players of the 1960s kept pushing to get the owners to give them more benefits. They always seem to lose except salaries increased as TV contracts increased.
Television is willing to pay sports teams lavishly because TV executives think 18-49 year old males and 25-54 year old males will tune in and support advertisers’ products. The NFL makes TV networks. Monday Night Football made ABC a legitimate network in 1970. NFL ratings were down significantly in 1999, and 2000 yet CBS was happy with its decision to return to the NFL after one time owner Lawrence Tisch passed on extending the network's NFC deal with the league in 1993.
Tisch's failure to extend NFL football on CBS caused a massive turnover in the TV industry. CBS lost local affiliates in Detroit and Milwaukee as stations defected to FOX to continue having NFL games and FOX became a network sports powerhouse, eventually securing the rights to Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
While CBS claimed to have broken even on its football expenditure in 1998, insiders knew that other areas of the company were cut back because of football. The company announced massive layoffs in 1998 and closed studios around the United States.
After the NFL was lost in 1993, CBS still had its billion dollar, seven-year deal to cover the NCAA Tournament in basketball, golf's Masters and college football. Cutbacks at CBS were nothing new. Tisch scaled back the news operations in the 1980s to pay for football and baseball. In fact, Tisch really started the pay escalation for TV rights by paying the enormous sum of $1.06 billion over four years for MLB television rights from 1990-93. CBS ended up losing millions on the deal, especially with poor Saturday Game of the Week ratings.
Without the NFL and John Madden, Rupert Murdoch's United States media empire may not be as imposing as it is today.
Before the NFL and Madden, Murdoch's FOX network, which is technically not a network but a syndication unit, was a weak collection of UHF stations with the exception of a few cities like New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. Before the NFL and Madden, FOX had a few shows that drew some attention, the It's Gary Shandling's Show, the Tracy Ullman Show and Married With Children. Out of the Ullman show came The Simpsons, Shandling's show originally ran on Showtime and then went to FOX. Ullman's show was canceled in 1990. FOX could not establish a late night talk show, the Joan Rivers experiment was a disaster and a 1993 Chevy Chase late night show as a bomb. Not much worked for Murdoch.
Neither Al Bundy nor Bart Simpson, as popular as the characters would become, could bolster FOX. Murdoch's team was buying TV stations and became the biggest owner of over-the-air stations in the United States but by 1993, it was still the fourth network in a three horse race for ratings behind CBS, NBC and ABC.
The NFL and Madden changed all of that. Actually, it was Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys that put Murdoch on the map as Jones and Murdoch negotiated the TV deal that would change everything. The NFL had been prospering from TV rights fees since the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act which allowed the league commissioner, who is also the league's chief negotiator and lobbyist in all things NFL, to bundle the 14 member franchises into one entity in order to negotiate a TV deal. Three decades later, the NFL was a 30 franchise entity with four separate and distinct elements. CBS had the National Football Conference contests and paid slightly more money for the NFC than NBC did for American Football Conference games because the NFC had more major markets. ABC had Monday Night Football and ESPN and Turner Sports split a Sunday night package.
The NFL was being paid $3.6 million over a four year period between 1990 and 1993.
Murdoch's fourth place network was desperate for a game changer and the NFL provided him with an opening. The NFL and Jones were knocked over by Murdoch's bid for the NFC games. Murdoch was willing to fork over $1.58 billion over four years to get the NFC package along with the Super Bowl. Murdoch had a syndication arm but no news division, no sports division, none of the apparatus that CBS, ABC and NBC had. Murdoch knew that the NFL deals with an old philosophy, cash on the barrel head gets serious consideration and because he blew CBS out of the water with his bid, the NFL and Jones knew they would be getting a new partner with a patchwork of big city VHF and small area UHF stations and both sides would have to make it work.
In December 1993, The NFL took the money. In retrospect, it was the right decision but at the time it looked like just a money grab.
In early 1994, Murdoch started to prepare for the 1994 season by quickly established a sports department by giving Madden an enormous contact and hiring his sidekick Pat Summerall. Murdoch also took Madden's CBS support team and made John feel right at home. Madden would become the face of FOX sports and with the NFL in tow, Murdoch was able to steal VHF stations in Detroit and Milwaukee away from CBS. Murdoch had one of TV's crown jewels, the NFL, and FOX would now be in a position to become a serious player in American TV.
It can be suggested that the success of the NFL and Madden on FOX led to Murdoch to start the FOX News Channel. The over-the-air network, still technically a syndication arm, started producing hits like the X-Files along with Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, In Living Color to go along with The Simpsons and Married With Children. Murdoch didn't have blockbuster ratings but the network was doing okay business and he already had a satellite news network in Europe, Murdoch turned to creating a United States cable TV news channel.
There are no what if questions. The NFL and Madden changed the fortunes of both Murdoch and Lawrence Tisch's CBS. In 1993, CBS completed the TV hat trick; it won daytime, prime time and late night ratings. David Letterman had just moved over to the network and things were looking good. But Tisch's CBS did not invest in cable TV, lost the NFL and Madden, football's top star both on and off the field, lost affiliates and would start a downward spiral. Murdoch's FOX Sports added the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball soon after the NFL deal. Eventually Murdoch would gain NASCAR and the Bowl Championship Series. On the cable TV side, Murdoch sort of has a national sports network, but that is not where Murdoch really has a sports foothold. Murdoch's regional sports cable networks are still strong despite being challenged by upstarts in the past few years. FOX either owns or has agreements with 23 regionals and there are college sports networks as well. There is also a partnership with The Big Ten Network
Madden's signing with FOX after CBS lost the NFL rights in 1993 cannot be dismissed. John Madden was a major part of the FOX promotion, so much so that at an NFL owners meeting at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, John ended up by the master of ceremonies for the night's owners party after Murdoch departed. Madden left FOX after the February 2002 Super Bowl and joined ABC Monday Night Football's crew. John was no longer that valuable to Murdoch. Rupert built a viable network; he had built a strong regional sports cable network. He had his news channel and was finally an American citizen because non American citizens could not own TV networks. Murdoch, the Australian, should not have owned FOX but American President Bill Clinton's Federal Communication Commission in 1995 allowed Murdoch to run FOX because it was "in the best interest of the public."
NFL owners never knew what they had in the 1950s. Today billions flow into the owners pockets. The fight between the owners and players is all about money. It is “Money Now” for the players and the owners.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org