Owner misguided in his views of agreement

The time has come for Bills owner Ralph Wilson to stop his public bashing of the CBA extension, John Clayton writes.

Updated: April 10, 2006, 12:10 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Some former Bills and some Bills fans never got over Scott Norwood's last-second missed field goal that cost Buffalo a victory against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.

Losing is always tough, but sometimes it's even harder to accept when you're dealt a narrow defeat. Ask Mike Holmgren. The Seahawks coach still is trying to get over his team's Super Bowl XL loss to the Steelers in a game filled with close and controversial officiating calls. But listening to Bills owner Ralph Wilson's news conference Friday was a little disturbing.

Wilson is taking his complaints about the new collective bargaining extension to any New York state politicians who'll listen. He's soliciting their help in reshaping the agreement reached last month in Dallas that kept labor peace in the NFL through 2011.

The disturbing part is not Wilson's intentions. All he's trying to do is preserve pro football in western New York. Wilson is Buffalo Bills football. Someday, he probably will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his contributions to the old AFL, the NFL and Bills fans. He is to Bills football what the Rooneys are to Steelers fans and Al Davis is to Raiders fans.

(AP Photo/David Duprey) Wilson hasn't been shy in voicing his displeasure over the new CBA extension.

But his tack is disturbing and almost comes off as though he's waving the white flag of surrender, and that's not good. Wilson and Bengals owner Mike Brown were the only two owners who voted against the expensive, complicated but game-saving CBA. Sure, it gave players a bigger percentage of the revenues. Of course, the revenue-sharing plan wasn't perfect. This was a deal done at the last minute.

Since returning to Buffalo from the Dallas meeting, Wilson has come off like a Bills fan who hasn't gotten over the Norwood kick. Ralph, it's time to get over it and move on and work within the system, not against it.

This isn't to say some of Wilson's points shouldn't be heard. Remember, no one will get a copy of the new CBA until sometime this fall. It's a very complicated deal. I'm not going to debate the quality of the revenue-sharing plan with the Bills owner because he has more access to the details than I do, but it is a plan that supposedly will give $120 million to $150 million a year to low-revenue clubs, and the Bills should qualify.

Until everything is in place and the formula is set, the Bills and Wilson have a right to worry. They sell out their stadium and do their best to maximize ticket prices. Wilson has kept football in Buffalo going on 46 years. I'm not about to question what he thinks is best for business.

What I am questioning is some of the logic he's using for a vote that is history. In particular, there were three parts of his recent news conference that didn't make sense.

• Toward the end of Friday's talk with the Buffalo media, Wilson suggested it might have been better to have no new deal and prepare for an uncapped 2007. That, in my opinion and that of the 30 owners who voted for the deal, is ridiculous.

"We were not afraid of an uncapped year," Wilson said in the news conference. "We were not afraid of a strike in 1987."

An uncapped league for the Bills would be disastrous. For one, the revenue gap between the high-revenue and low-revenue teams would only grow, and the quality of the low-revenue teams would only shrink. The Redskins, Patriots, Cowboys and Eagles are atop the revenue pool and already have $80 million to $100 million more in revenue than some of the poorer clubs.

An uncapped year would allow the lower-revenue teams to make more profit by paying less money. Although that might be good for some teams' pockets, it would make the league less competitive. Under the new deal, a team is forced to have a minimum payroll of $85.5 million and there are future penalties against teams that spend more than the $102 million of the cap. During the salary cap era, the expansion Houston Texans are the only team not to make the playoffs. Having an uncapped league would allow a Florida Marlins-like move in which a team takes its payroll down to $14 million to ensure a profit.

Plus, there would have been a lockout in 2008. Ralph, allowing that wouldn't make sense.

• Wilson feels uncomfortable among the new guard of owners. He goes to owners meetings and doesn't recognize a lot of the people. Many of his old friends are gone. Wellington Mara is gone, and many of the old guard owners are dwindling. That's tough.

During the owners meeting in Dallas last month, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Dan Snyder of the Redskins and the Kraft family in New England helped to broker the new deal to extend the collective bargaining agreement. Wilson felt it favored the higher-revenue teams even though there is better revenue sharing.

What I don't agree with is his criticism of these new guard owners.

"This is my opinion, but they don't have the same values about the league that the [old] guard did," Wilson said.

Realize, the new owners come from different economic backgrounds. The Wilsons, Rooneys, Halases, Maras and others founded the league and helped in its growth. Their success took the values of the franchises to $700 million to $800 million investments. New guard owners have to be businessmen and hustlers because the league is adamant about not having corporations owning teams. Of course, the values of the newer owners are different because they have to pay off more debt.

What these owners showed in Dallas is they care about the league, in the sense that they passed a revenue-sharing plan that spreads $120 million to $150 million a year to lower-revenue teams. How that money is funded is being worked on, but initially, it's going to be $3 million a year from the top revenue teams and a lot more taken out of future revenue streams. The Joneses, Snyders and Krafts will scramble to create new ways to get revenue for the league.

There is nothing wrong with that.

• The third thing disturbing about the conference was how Wilson made light of selling the naming rights to Ralph Wilson Stadium. He joked that he wouldn't get enough money off the stadium rights to sign a college free agent.

One of the high-revenue owners' biggest complaints was that some teams aren't maximizing their revenues, so why should they take $3 million out of their profits and give it to owners who aren't maximizing their revenues. Fair position. Wilson has every right to keep his name on the stadium, but he can't expect to be subsidized by other owners for that amount, whatever it would be.

The NFL is set up for the little guys to be successful on the field and off. Look at the Green Bay Packers. They play in the smallest market in major pro sports. Yet, their front office is progressive enough to keep maximizing their revenues without bleeding their fans with high ticket costs. They keep remodeling the stadium, adding suites and finding new ways to create revenue. They put a food court atrium on one side of the stadium that fans enjoy year-round.

Thanks to their hard work, the Packers are among the higher-revenue teams, and they certainly can't be considered new guard.

The new CBA is in effect. If it doesn't work, it can be voided in four years, but that wouldn't be good for the sport. Everyone expects this system to work, but like most hard deals, the best deal is usually the one that leaves all sides feeling hurt. The players came out great. The owners felt the pain, but the deal is done and there is enough money around to keep everyone happy.

The Bills should succeed in this system as they have in the past, but complaining to politicians isn't going to get anything done.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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