The current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL players and owners that was signed in 2006 will expire on March 3. In May 2008, NFL owners opted out of the agreement early. The players want to play a full NFL season in 2011 and have offered to extend the current deal in an effort to work out a long-term deal without an interruption of league operations. The players haven't asked for anything more and literally don't want anything more. They have asked simply to play under the existing agreement.
The NFL is at the height of its popularity and success. According to reports Thursday, the NFL and ESPN are close to a nearly $2 billion renewal for the rights to "Monday Night Football." In 2010, 65 of the top 100 watched sporting events in the U.S. were NFL games. Eighteen of the top 20 viewed telecasts this television season were NFL games, and we haven't even seen the playoffs yet. Revenues are up. Sponsorships are up. Every television ad for this year's Super Bowl was sold months ago. All signs and indicators point to extraordinary success and rapid growth for the business of football.
According to the NFL and team owners, however, the "economic model in the NFL doesn't work." What's more, they have prepared for and are openly threatening a lockout if it's not "fixed." What is their proposal to fix it? They've asked the players for more than a $1 billion reduction in the players' portion of revenues in the first year alone of a future CBA. By the way, in a league with no guaranteed contracts, revealed dangers of the game and injury concerns at their peak, they want players to play two extra regular-season games.
The players maintain that one fundamental question needs to be answered in earnest if there is to be an agreement before a lockout: Why is the current deal so bad? If owners had decided to make this a direct business transaction between partners, the players are confident a deal would've been struck a long time ago. Business partners get together, sign confidentiality agreements, exchange financials and negotiate. Our repeated requests for detailed financial information that would help us answer the quintessential question have been denied.
As a result, players and fans have to go by what we do know. I recently sent a letter to all sports editors to set the record straight on the economics and revenue breakdown between players and owners because the phrase most frequently seen is that "players get 60 percent of revenues." This is not an accurate depiction. Players receive approximately 50 percent of all revenues in the NFL. Or, players receive approximately 60 percent of total revenue in the NFL after the owners take a number of expense credits that add up to more than $1 billion a year.
This is significant because the past 10 years of financial data at the highest levels show that the players' portion of revenues has decreased slightly. Simply put, the available data directly contradict the rationale and explanation of the NFL's justification for a rollback or, worse, a lockout. An unjustified lockout not only would prevent players from playing and fans from watching but also would have real negative economic consequences on NFL team cities.
The players have asked repeatedly for financial transparency and economic information. We have been told publicly and privately that detailed financials are "none of your business." In an era of greater financial transparency, this is confusing. Frankly, it signals that this negotiation is about something much different from figuring out how to work together to secure the future of the game.
For example, the owners have been clamoring for a rookie wage scale. They cited "exploding" rookie contracts as a reason for opting out early in 2008. The players offered a proposal to address owners' concerns called the proven performance plan. The NFL said no based on unwillingness to guarantee that the saved rookie money would go toward proven veteran players.
It's a shame that, nearly 1,000 days after the NFL owners opted out of the CBA, they can't guarantee NFL games next year. It's a shame heading into exciting playoffs with great games ahead that this unresolved issue continues to steal headlines. It's a shame that the owners are threatening to prevent players from playing football. It's a shame that the unanswered question remains: Why is this deal so bad?
The NFL players have asked me to share a simple request on their behalf: Open the books and let us play.
George Atallah is the assistant executive director for external affairs at the NFLPA. You can follow him on Twitter at @georgeatallah.