By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; D03
Next weekend's Super Bowl in Miami will be the culmination of another prosperous season for the NFL, which proved once more that it is unchallenged as the country's preeminent sport. The NFL thrived in an uncertain economy and produced its highest TV ratings in two decades.
But while the league stages its reinvented Pro Bowl on Sunday night and the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts prepare to travel to South Florida on Monday, there are storm clouds gathering. The NFL's 32 team owners and players union have made so little progress in their negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement that both are seemingly resigned that next season will be played without a salary cap, and the players expect to be locked out in 2011.
Some observers suggest that the Saints-Colts game next Sunday may be the last feel-good Super Bowl for a while.
"I think when people start hearing phrases like 'opting out' and 'uncapped year,' their eyes kind of glaze over," said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "With the Super Bowl coming up, and when people hear that the games are going to be played next season, your average fan is particularly dismissive at this point. They just look at it and say, for now, it's all so far away. . . .
"A year from now, at that point people could be reading about sponsors being wary, about how TV partners are going to handle it, about the labor tactics of the two sides. It's no longer so far off. The gravity of the message would change considerably."
The potential labor problems will seep into the Super Bowl dialogue this week, as the state of the negotiations undoubtedly will be a prime topic during the annual news conferences of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association.
The rhetoric from the two sides has been combative of late. After New York Giants co-owner John Mara said publicly that no progress was being made in the talks and that the players had not responded in a meaningful way to a proposal by the owners, Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae said it's the owners who have failed to respond in a meaningful way. Mawae, the union president, said the owners have failed to justify their request for a 20 percent rollback of players' salaries. The league denied that the owners have made such a request.
The two sides also have been at odds over an antitrust case involving the NFL that is before the Supreme Court. The case involves one of the league's former merchandise makers, American Needle, and the union says the outcome could have a significant impact on its relationship with the NFL and the labor negotiations. NFL officials say the case has nothing to do with labor issues.
Mawae told a congressional subcommittee this month that the players are "fully anticipating" a lockout in 2011. The current labor deal expires after the 2010 season. This season is the final one in the agreement with a salary cap.
"The NFL's ideal post-American Needle world is indeed chilling. . . . As I sit here today, I am not sure why anyone would want to tamper with such a profitable economic model," Mawae told the House subcommittee on courts and competition policy, and added: "We have fought so hard for labor peace. We are concerned if the NFL does indeed get what they want from the American Needle case that we could lose much of what we fought for."
Following that hearing, Mawae said: "We hope there isn't a lockout. But if there is one, the players are going to be prepared for it."
Goodell has denied that the owners, who voted in 2008 to reopen the current labor agreement two years early, are preparing for a lockout. The 32 team owners have called the current deal, which they approved in 2006, overly favorable to the players; it gives the players an average of 59.5 percent of league revenue under the salary cap.
"There are a lot of new players in management and on the players' side. You have to give great consideration of what our real responsibility is," Goodell said at a midseason owners meeting. "The owners have to have a system that works to grow the game. The players want to be paid fairly for what they do, and they should."
The NFL had bitter labor battles in the 1980s, with strikes by the players in 1982 and '87. But former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the late executive director of the union, forged a lasting labor peace thereafter.
"If you take a close look at just how powerful the NFL has become, a big part of it is having sustained labor peace," Carter said in a telephone interview. "It's enabled sponsors and others to get behind them. It's enabled TV partners to plan around them without having to worry about an interruption. If you have a stable labor force and you're able to distribute your product with no interruption, you have a real chance to build your business. That's what the NFL has had. But that could be threatened."
For now, at least, times are good. The NFL had its highest regular season TV viewership since 1990. Last Sunday's NFC title game between the Saints and Minnesota Vikings was the most-watched conference championship game in 28 years, with an average audience of 57.9 million viewers.
Carter said he expects some measure of corporate opulence to return to the Super Bowl this year after the NFL and many businesses were more restrained than usual last year, due to concerns about the economy.
"I think there will be an appropriate amount to conduct business," Carter said. "It won't be over the top. But it won't be so minimalist as to make your clients wonder why you bothered."