When the NFL's team owners hurried out of a downtown Washington hotel late last month after a two-day spring meeting, there was little optimism that they were within striking distance of a compromise on revenue sharing, the primary obstacle to an extension of the labor deal with the players' union.
A few owners, in fact, seemed convinced that the group was more divided than ever over how -- or even if -- the league's wealthiest franchises should contribute more of their locally generated revenues to help less prosperous teams remain competitive.
"When you've got 32 independent people all looking out for number one," New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said, "you're going to have some obstacles."
The owners are scheduled to reconvene today in Detroit for a two-day meeting in which stadium funding issues in Indianapolis and Dallas are to be the primary topics. But it's virtually certain that the revenue-sharing debate will be resumed, as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue attempts to find a consensus on the matter that would produce a labor deal by the fall.
"We'll have a deal before it's over with," Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams said at the Washington meeting. "It's the best thing for football."
The teams share some revenue streams, such as national TV contracts, equally. But the growing disparity between clubs in locally generated revenues -- such as suites, sponsorships, stadium naming rights and local radio and TV deals -- is creating a gap between the "have" and "have-not" teams that some owners fear eventually could translate into a competitive imbalance.
"The success the league has had has shown the need to be together on these issues," Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said. "It will get resolved. I'm confident of that. Revenue sharing is important for all the teams -- not just six teams, not just nine teams, but all the teams."
Under one proposal, teams would contribute 34 percent of their local revenues into a general fund, which would then be split equally among the 32 teams. But several owners of wealthy teams -- a group that includes the Washington Redskins, New England Patriots and Houston Texans -- have balked, arguing that they need the revenues they're generating to make debt-service payments for their immense franchise fees and stadium-improvement costs.
"If there are teams that can't compete, I'll be the first in line to help those teams compete," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Every high-revenue team, without exception, that I have ever talked to has said unequivocally that we want all teams to be financially competitive. . . . [But] one of those [high-revenue] teams signs a $40 million interest check every year. Revenue is not necessarily money. Revenue has a lot of expenses. . . . [Texans owner] Bob McNair comes in and pays all that money for his franchise, and makes these huge investments. Are we going to tell him that he can't keep his money?"
McNair said as he left the Washington meeting that the revenue-sharing debate among the owners hadn't gotten nasty, and he was confident a resolution would be found. But some owners regarded the vote at the D.C. meeting to snub Houston as a prospective host of the 2009 Super Bowl (the game was awarded to Tampa) as a revenue-sharing backlash. Much is at stake, as the NFL tries to avoid the sort of labor confrontation that has shut down the NHL and has the NBA readying for a potential lockout of its players.
"I don't see us going the way of hockey or the NBA," Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said, but "we still have a ways to go. . . . I feel strongly we have to have a stronger revenue-sharing system . . . [but] it's going to be very difficult. There are lots of different ideas and lots of different agendas. I don't think it will be easily done."