NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw said yesterday that he expects the union and the league to agree to an extension of their collective bargaining agreement now that the sport's new television contracts have been completed.
"I can't tell you when, but I can tell you it will be done," Upshaw said in a telephone interview. "That's why we were able to finish this TV deal."
Upshaw's comments were in stark contrast to the manner in which participants previously described the labor negotiations, with characterizations ranging from guarded to pessimistic. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said during last month's league meetings in Hawaii that the talks were at a dead end.
But Upshaw said yesterday that there had been progress in the negotiations, and the TV networks would not have agreed to their new deals with the NFL if they hadn't received assurances that the league would be able to maintain labor peace.
"The key to all of this is the stability of our league and the labor peace," Upshaw said. "That's one of the big reasons we've had the success we've had. Labor was a big part of this. Labor is a big reason these TV deals were completed because it's a big part of the product we put on the field. . . . These guys are paying for prime rib. They don't want hot dogs."
The NFL announced agreements yesterday with NBC and ESPN for its Sunday night and Monday night TV packages, after completing contract extensions last year with Fox and CBS for Sunday afternoon games.
The league and the union are attempting to extend their labor deal through the 2011 season. The current collective bargaining agreement keeps the league's system of free agency and the salary cap in place through the 2006 season before there would be a season without a salary cap in 2007. Both sides want to avoid that. Previous sets of negotiations involving Tagliabue and Upshaw have gone smoothly. But Upshaw is seeking major changes to the league's economic system in these negotiations, and some owners of wealthy franchises are resisting proposals in which they would share more of their local revenues with less prosperous teams. But Upshaw said he's confident that Tagliabue will bring the owners to a consensus.
"We're moving forward," Upshaw said. "I wouldn't say we're done, but we've shown some flexibility from our opening position and so have they. I can't tell you what the timetable is, but it doesn't take too long to strike a deal. . . . There was always a school of thought, 'Why should we finish the labor deal when we haven't finished the TV deal yet?' Now we've finished the TV deal. We know what the revenues from that are going to be, and we can move forward."
Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, the chairman of the NFL's broadcasting committee that negotiated the TV deals, participated in a recent labor-negotiating session and said by telephone yesterday: "I'm not really that involved in the labor aspect of it, but certainly getting these TV deals done should help with getting the labor deal done."