ROSEMONT, Ill.— The owners of the 32 NFL teams met Tuesday to consider the terms of a possible agreement with locked out players, a deal that would give players just less than half the sport’s burgeoning revenue.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared to be trying to consolidate support for a deal that could be completed in coming weeks. Despite reports of concerns by some owners, it appeared that the level of dissent was relatively modest as the meeting began in a hotel near O’Hare Airport. There was widespread expectation that Goodell would be able to address the group’s reservations and emerge with the authority to finish a deal with the players.
“This is the season to get a deal,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said before entering the meeting room.
ESPN reported that the accord would include a full-season television package of Thursday night games beginning in 2012. But Goodell said that idea has not been discussed recently and others familiar with the idea said it could not be accomplished by 2012. Currently, Thursday and Saturday night games are televised on the league-owned NFL Network in the second half of the season.
The players received slightly more than half the sport’s revenues in the past. But, according to one person familiar with the situation, they likely would be comfortable accepting slightly less than half in the future because overall revenue is expected to rise sharply and total player compensation would increase rapidly, even if players accepted a smaller percentage of the gross revenue.
Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the dissolved players’ union, have participated in a series of negotiating sessions over the past three weeks, along with small groups of owners and players. Those meetings apparently have put a deal between the two sides within reach.
Any agreement between the league and the players would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 owners to be implemented.
Players have been locked out by the owners since March 12, the day after they dissolved their union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners.
As Tuesday’s meeting began, it appeared that only a handful of owners had serious objections to a potential deal, according to people familiar with the owners’ deliberations. Those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said that Goodell wanted to use this meeting to allow the owners to express their views in advance of a deal being completed, in an attempt to ensure that opposition to an agreement doesn’t grow.
The owners with concerns apparently want the agreement to provide protection for the teams in case of an economic downturn. Some owners also appear to believe that the league should take advantage of its recent courtroom victories to negotiate a more favorable deal.
But other owners are pressing for a deal on the terms currently being negotiated with the players.
“I think that’s the hope,” Irsay said before Tuesday’s meeting. “I think really that’s the logical thing. You’re pushing on both sides and saying why get a deal on Oct. 1 or whenever that you could have had July 7? It just makes sense to continue to have a feeling or urgency to try to get something done. That’s my hope. But these things are tough. They’re fragile. You’ve just got to keep working at it.”
A significant number of executives involved in their teams’ football operations also attended Tuesday’s meeting. That group included general managers Bruce Allen of the Washington Redskins and Scott Pioli of the Kansas City Chiefs, and team presidents Rich McKay of the Atlanta Falcons, Bill Polian of the Indianapolis Colts and Mike Holmgren of the Cleveland Browns.
Their attendance at Tuesday’s meeting could signal that the discussions include consideration of procedures for the NFL to resume operations after a deal is struck. Free agency and trades of players have been on hold during the lockout.
Irsay said last month that he thought a deal would have to be struck by July 4 to allow for a sufficient free agent signing period before a full training camp, preseason and regular season. The season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8.
Talks between the league and players are likely to resume this week, perhaps as soon as Wednesday. The two sides apparently would like to make a negotiating push next week to complete an agreement before the July 4 holiday. But some people familiar with the talks have cautioned that the negotiations still could unravel and, due to the complexity of the issues, a deal might be unlikely before mid-July.
The league and players apparently have been negotiating annual salary caps that would start at $141 million to $151 million per team in the first year of a deal. The two sides began the negotiations with owners seeking an additional $1 billion annual credit for their expenses before the players’ portion of revenue is calculated.
But that approach was abandoned before talks broke down in March, and instead began focusing on trying to agree to annual salary cap figures and a system—called a “true-up”—for calculating how much of annual revenue above projections would go to each side.
It is believed that players with expired contracts would be eligible for unrestricted free agency after four NFL seasons under the teams of a prospective deal. That was the sport’s previous requirement before it was raised to six seasons last offseason in a year played without a salary cap. Teams again would be able to limit players’ free-agent mobility by using franchise-player tags.
A deal between the league and players likely would include an increased player-payroll minimum for teams that requires them to spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap, up from the previous minimum of slightly more than 85 percent.
According to a report by ESPN, owners were told Tuesday that players would receive about 48 percent of all revenues under the terms of a potential settlement, a share that never would drop below 46.5 percent. Players previously received about half of all revenue.
A deal between the league and the players also is likely to include a new rookie compensation system, but not an 18-game season originally demanded by the league. The league also has offered a reduction in offseason workouts and has proposed blood-testing players for human growth hormone. The NFL also is seeking to get out from under ongoing court oversight of its labor situation.
The recent negotiations between the league and players have come as the two sides await a ruling by a federal appeals court on whether it will allow the lockout to continue.
Any deal between the league and players probably would be accompanied by the players re-forming their union. A deal also would have to be approved by the federal court in which the players’ antitrust lawsuit was filed.