x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

After the Super Bowl, action shifts to the NFL's boardrooms

The Super Bowl was great, but now NFL fans face the prospect of no football – not just for the off-season, but indefinitely – because of a labour dispute between players and owners.

Americans hit the pillow on Sunday night still charged up by an enthralling and dramatic Super Bowl that all but fulfilled its bold promise.

No matter had we worn a cheesehead, waved a Terrible Towel or declared ourselves non-partisan, we could not easily turn off the flowing confetti in our minds, long after it had stopped littering Cowboys Stadium.

Next morning, we awakened to the unsettling realisation that Packers 31, Steelers 25 might have to sustain us. Not just until opening day on September 8, but well beyond.

The NFL's focus shifts from the locker rooms to the boardrooms. League management and the players' association must hammer out a collective bargaining agreement - a fancy phrase that essentially means how to divide the money - to replace the one that expires next month. So far, neither has shown the urgency of a two-minute drill that we would anticipate, instead taking their own sweet time.

This competition, unlike the type with blocking and tackling, we will observe with a jumble of confusion and disgust.

With league revenue rising to US$9 billion (Dh33bn) this season past, the parties have the sweetest, fluffiest financial pie imaginable to slice. No matter how it is split up, there would be plenty to go around. So what if one side sacrifices an extra bite?

Simple, right?

Not with these pillars of obstinacy.

Shame especially on team owners, whose franchises are worth an average of $1.2bn, vastly more than what they paid for them.

These fat cats approved, with only two dissenters, a deal with the players in 2006 that was acknowledged as unacceptable long-term. They knew this dark day was coming. Now that it is around the corner, the owners' progress can be measured by a pocket ruler, not a first-down marker.

The union, hardly blameless, knows it squeezed out a sweetheart contract, with almost 60 per cent of revenue funnelled to players, minus $1bn off the top for designated expenses. The median player salary for 2009 was $790,000 - this season's has not been determined - up 79 per cent for the decade.

From our sideline perspective - or, from our seats, for which we paid an average of $76 per league game, not counting the outrageous personal seat licence fees assessed by some clubs - there are acres of common ground that could yield a compromise.

The union is seeking improved health care benefits. Management, sensitive to the perception that it is indifferent to the beat-up athletes, could polish its image by obliging.

The union demands transparency, wanting to see more financial records that would justify management's stance. The owners could jump-start talks by sharing statements to support their case.

The union appears amenable to a rookie wage scale that owners crave.

And there is this history lesson as a reminder: owner lockouts and player strikes alienate fans. Most of them forgive and forget, but a few swear off the sport - usually for awhile, sometimes forever.

Recession-bitten Americans who are shuffling a stack of unpaid bills might be sufficiently offended to adopt a spectator sport where the millionaires in uniforms and the multimillionaires in suits get along.

Yet some unusual factors cloud the picture.

Both chief negotiators - Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, in one corner, DeMaurice Smith, the union executive director, in the other - are new at this game. Neither wishes to open his career with what would be perceived as a loss.

Management scored an insurance policy of sorts in its latest deal with the television networks, persuading them to continue paying rights fees even if there are no real games - or games at all - to broadcast.

With its goal of stretching the regular season to 18 games per team, management's claims to be concerned for the welfare of players ring hollow to the union. The continuous television shots during the Super Bowl of injured Packers and Steelers trudging to the locker rooms for treatment drove home the sport's brutal nature.

For most players, more is not better, and they are insulted that management would push for additional games without their consent.

Most divisive of all, management is asking for what amounts to a billion dollars in givebacks. An extra 11 per cent of revenue would stay with the owners.

Such proposals are commonly heard in the car industry when folks stop buying SUVs, not in sectors such as professional football that are flush with cash.

The best guess here is that the owners, as much as they desire the upper hand, will listen to their accountants and make enough concessions to forestall a work stoppage. The golden goose, and all of that.

But if the current sabre-rattling results in drawn swords and an extended fight, that could mean Sundays and Mondays without football next autumn and winter.

If so, may your cheesehead come with earmuffs to block out the whining from the owners and players. And may your Terrible Towel serve as a crying towel.