Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

NFL owners want guarantees no other business provides

I’m not sure why NFL players and fans should pay the estate taxes for Daniel Snyder’s children, along with the little Bidwills and Maras. That’s one way to think of the current NFL labor dispute. The owners are worried that $9 billion isn’t enough revenue growth, and their heirs might someday have to fly commercial. So they’re demanding that everybody pony up.

That’s really what this is all about. The owners are lucky that the collective bargaining process is so convoluted, and the language of their argument with the players is hard to understand. Because when you peel away the headachy legal terms and expose their real position, it can be summed up very simply: They believe they are entitled to make money every year, even in the midst of disastrous recessions. They think they are owed a living.

They also think your money is actually their money. Or at least, it used to be yours, before you paid it at the box office, paid it at the concessions, paid it in the parking lot, and paid it in countless other ways — from those deplorable “seat licenses” to tax breaks and public funds for new stadiums and renovations, where they can charge you even more.

What are owners really owed in return for their investments? That’s what fans must decide, in weighing whose side to support in the impending lockout and labor impasse, which, judging by the belligerent maneuvering of the past week now, likely will last many months and disrupt next season. The core issue is this: Owners resent the fact that a lot of your money is going into the pockets of players, instead of into their own. They contend the players are overpaid, and they are threatening to lock them out as of March 4 if they don’t agree to a significant cut. They say this is a necessary step to ensure future profitability.

But in what other industry do business owners act so entitled to make money every year into the limitless future? According to Forbes, the NFL’s revenue has increased 43 percent since 2006 to $9.3 billion. Under the current agreement, the first billion goes to the 32 owners right off the top, while players receive a 60 percent split of revenues after that. Now the owners are demanding another billion off the top.

Who exactly is more overpaid? To repeat, the argument is over money that comes out of the fans’ pockets. The only question is who should get more of it, the owners or the players that the fans pay to see? After all, they don’t pay to see Snyder smoke a cigar, or consult with media advisors.

The owners justify their position by decrying rising “player costs.” Player compensation has doubled since 2003, but that’s because the wealthiest owners have driven up the market for their stars. Pete Rozelle’s wife once observed that, “every owner I ever met thinks he’s just two players from winning the Super Bowl.”

The cost argument really should be an internal quarrel between the owners. If some of them aren’t making enough money, or are even losing money — if some of them built sports palaces and some didn’t — whose fault is that? Maybe they don’t need a better collective bargaining agreement. Maybe they need a budget.

Yet the owners quite clearly want the players to pick up the tab for some of their excesses — and the fans, too. On Tuesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell made it plain once again that the real driving force behind the owner demands is that they want to free up revenue for “innovation and growth,” namely the “costs of financing, building, maintaining and operating stadiums.” But bigger stadiums may well mean more expenses shifted to the fans.

What’s more, they appear to be digging in, judging by their latest actions. Last week; they walked away from a bargaining session; this week; they filed a charge against the players’ union with the National Labor Relations Board. One day, they refuse to talk; the next, they accuse the other side of not negotiating; and then, the next say that the season could be in jeopardy if a deal isn’t reached soon.

What’s really going on? The suspicion here is that the league owners are simply tempted to see if they can do as well in labor negotiations as the NHL did in improving its financial condition with a lockout a few years ago. But there is a big difference between the NFL and the NHL: Hockey is not nearly so profitable, and the lockout and the accompanying risk of alienating their fans were therefore worth it.

As long the NFL is raking in $9 billion and so many owners are clearly making money, it’s pretty difficult for them to claim to be on the high ground, or to cry poor.

It’s not like they’re the airline industry, or even hockey.

So far they have utterly failed to make the case that they are so financially imperiled that players should make sacrifices for them, or fans either. For one thing, they continue to refuse to open their books, presumably because the results could be embarrassing.

Disclosure of their real conditions might reveal just how ungenerous they are with the players they claim to care about. Or it might reveal just how mercilessly hard they are working to strip every dime out of the fans.

The next time a league official claims the players make “outrageous sums,” as Goodell does, fans should ask themselves the following questions: How much are owners making? And how much of that is due to government subsidies?

Are teams really in danger of losing money — or do they merely crave unlimited “growth?” Would a new labor agreement work for or against the interest of the ticket-buyers? If the owners win a billion-dollar concession from players, what will they do with the money? Will prices go down?

Do they really need a new deal — or have they been getting a sweetheart one all along?

 
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