Tuesday, February 22, 2011
If the NFL Players' Association, the bargaining arm for NFL players, is counting on public sympathy swinging their way as they take on the owners, they may want to think again.
For unions and their members, this isn’t exactly the best of times. The aggressive stance toward eliminating the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions taking place in the legislatures of Wisconsin and Ohio at the moment is to a great extent reflective of how little the public sympathizes at the moment with unions generally. That can't be good news for NFL players who may be counting on that public support in order to resist the owners' stated intention of redistributing the league's wealth more in their favor.
Don’t underestimate the importance of that public point of view. In ways large and small it will guide the outcome of the NFL negotiations and probably guide the upcoming negotiations in the NBA just as much as it will guide the outcome of the debates in Wisconsin and Ohio.
For reasons I’ve never quite understood, every time there is a strike in professional sports, there is a rush by the public to sympathize with the players because, apparently, the owners are really, really rich. But as Wisconsin is teaching us, class warfare of this nature is so 1992.
The ability of the governor of Wisconsin and the Republican-controlled legislature to effectively demonize the unions will no doubt have implications on how the NFL Players Union and their counterparts in the NBA choose to make their moves at their collective bargaining tables. It will force them to switch from combat to saving face mode.
Indeed, it may very well be that the public, influenced by the rather effective, but strident, marketing campaign of the governor of Wisconsin, will actively sympathize with the owners this time. If that’s the case, it will be a remarkable turnaround from where sympathies typically lie in any labor dispute.
At the moment, I don’t get the sense from fans that they will care all that much if the NFL or NBA owners invoke the nuclear option of shutting down their league until they get their way. There will be some blowback, to be sure. Fans sometimes are slow to return. But as we’ve seen in both baseball and hockey, they will return.
This isn't the place for a political debate. There are plenty of other outlets for that. But if public sympathies are indeed shifting because of Wisconsin then it’s important to understanding how the problems in the NFL will get solved to at least take a lesson from the Wisconsin experience.
The key lesson we’re learning from Wisconsin at the moment is that negotiation is neither necessary nor wanted. The governor brought into office on the wave of anti-incumbentism, feels that he has a mandate to not just take on the unions that he think are mostly responsible for busting his state's budget, but to actually eliminate them in practice if not in theory. He has a point. It's not as if the governor hid his agenda from the voters.
On an effectiveness scale, if it’s achieved it’s pretty effective. It probably won’t solve their budget problems, but that may not be the point anyway. The longer term desire appears to be to paint the unions as enemies of progress and fiscal responsibility. One has to wonder who future governors of Wisconsin and Ohio will then blame for their budget problems once the unions are gone, but that’s another issue for another day.
For our purposes though, it's enough to simply suggest that there isn't a whole lot of difference between the Wisconsin governor's view of unions then the approach that NFL owners are taking, though in fairness no one is suggesting that NFL owners are trying to break their unions. They are trying to eliminate their effectiveness, certainly, but eliminating them entirely doesn't appear to be on the agenda.
The problem, of course, is that all of this anti-union feelings are misplaced. What the Wisconsin governor and legislature are really fighting is the same thing the NFL owners are fighting, the past effectiveness of the unions on the other side. Whatever deals they currently have, whatever benefits the union members currently receive, are the result of a collective bargaining process in which the decision makers on the management side granted those benefits as a fair trade off for whatever it got out of that same deal.
Rather than deal with the issues at the bargaining table, where things like that tend to get done (or not), his method of solving the problem is to invoke Armageddon. In Wisconsin, that's defined as eliminating the unions entirely. In the NFL, it's defined as a long lockout and the cancellation of next season, if necessary, to force your will.
Just like in Wisconsin, the NFL and its owners are using the threat of Armageddon as a way of getting back what they previously gave away.
To simplify the stakes in the NFL, what the entire discussion comes down to is approximately $1 billion. That’s the hole that the owners see in their revenue pie, a hole by the way that opened because they gave it away the last time the parties sat down at the table.
What happened during the last NFL negotiations is that the owners, under the guidance of then commissioner Paul Tagliabue, favored labor peace at the expense of economics. That’s a fair trade. But of course there are a number of owners who soon thereafter had buyer’s remorse and have been spoiling to correct this perceived wrong ever since the ink dried on the last contract. It’s the reason the owners opted out of that agreement a year early and it’s the reason the owners have been rather straightforward in dangling the “lockout” word around. They want the union to understand in no uncertain terms that they mean business.
Indeed they do.
The billion dollar hole the owners see are the result of flat revenues from ticket sales, the sale of broadcast rights and the turning off of the public spigot that helped subsidize all those new stadiums of years past. What’s interesting is that the more strident owners didn’t like the deal cut the last time not because they foresaw flattening revenues but simply because they felt they deserved a bigger piece of the pie all along. As revenues did flatten, the view that the pie should be re-cut became mainstream.
The owners are offering the opportunity of growing revenues by adding two more regular season games. The point there is that more regular season games juices the revenue pie, meaning that although the union will get a smaller percentage, in real dollars their take should be roughly the same as it’s been.
The math on that is far from an exact science and is based mostly on projections, but at least it represents a legitimate starting point. What the union has to contend with is whether or not an expanded schedule and the heightened injury risk is worth chasing those extra dollars in order to essentially remain in the same place they’ve been.
It's a positive sign that the parties are in mediation, but short of union capitulation it probably won't be successful. And when it isn't, the ball is in the court for the owners to do what they feel they have to do, and they will.
So, yes, expect a lockout. And because the lockout has no real impact until September, look for it to last a good long while. This time, though, the difference may very well be that the sympathies lie with the owners and if that really does come to pass, the lockout will last up until the moment the union socializes that point among its members. And when that does happen, the owners will have gotten their way. But just like in Wisconsin, they'll leave for another day the question whether or not they actually ever did solve their problems n the long term. With history as the lesson, probably not