Select owners interested in continuing harmony

Originally Published: October 27, 2004
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

DEARBORN, Mich. -- He has never experienced ownership without labor peace and, having witnessed as a spectator the woes of other professional sports leagues that don't have a ceiling on player costs and which continue to operate with acrimony between management and the rank-and-file, Jerry Richardson isn't about to revert back to the NFL's bad ol' days.

We have to have labor peace and we have to [consummate] an extension to the collective bargaining agreement. We may not know exactly how to get there yet, but we know we have to get there, because it's key to our success.
Jerry Richardson, Panthers owner

That is why Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, was one of several who believed that, while hardly a headline day here, Wednesday still had its significant moments.

"I won't call them out by name, but we all know there are leagues with big problems, and I don't want to go there," Richardson said between sessions of a two-day NFL owners meeting. "We have to have labor peace and we have to [consummate] an extension to the collective bargaining agreement. We may not know exactly how to get there yet, but we know we have to get there, because it's key to our success."

A former NFL player himself, Richardson was part of a group of 13 owners -- the eight who comprise the executive committee of the powerful Management Council and five more influential power brokers -- who met with NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. During the 2½-hour huddle, Upshaw outlined the union's view of ongoing negotiations toward a CBA extension and reiterated his goal to grab a bigger piece of leaguewide revenues for his constituents.

Part of Upshaw's pitch, that there is a widening and perilous disparity between the NFL haves and have-nots in terms of franchise revenues, struck a chord with many owners who have similar concerns.

Among those owners are Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, Cincinnati's Mike Brown, Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and Jim Irsay of Indianapolis.

The feeling is that the top quartile of the league, the eight franchises who are raking in the highest revenues, have perhaps placed a bit too much distance between themselves and the rest of their NFL brethren. Even in a league that has a salary cap, which essentially is a bookkeeping number, higher revenues mean much bigger payrolls. The Washington Redskins, for instance, are among the eight highest-earning teams in the league and have a 2004 payroll estimated at an NFL record of about $110 million.

The league has prided itself, particularly in the age of parity, on maintaining competitive balance. No one, several owners acknowledged during a long day most spent in various committee meetings, wants to see the kind of situation that exists in baseball, where the payroll size is often the most accurate indicator of success.

Said the widely respected Rooney, whose Steelers rate in the middle of the NFL pack in terms of revenues: "Sure, it's a problem, and some of us have made that point now on more than a few occasions."

The salary cap, which this season is set at $80.6 million, is determined by the players' share of what are commonly known as designated gross revenues. The DGR comes from the cache of shared revenues, such as money from the NFL's network television contracts, but that pool does not include items like local broadcast rights, some luxury and club seats, and other stadium-generated monies.

Upshaw contended that 10 years ago, when the salary cap was introduced, the players did not share in about 30 percent of teams' revenues. That has ballooned, Upshaw suggested, to about 37 percent as leaguewide revenues have skyrocketed to $6 billion.

"We're not out to kill the golden goose, believe me, but things have changed and there is a need to revisit a lot of these things and move them forward," Upshaw said.

Later in the evening, when asked about Upshaw's remarks to the owners, commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- whose close working relationship with Upshaw has helped the NFL to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other sports loops -- disagreed. While he was not in the meeting, Tagliabue made it clear Upshaw has made the same arguments to him.

"I know what [Upshaw] is saying, but I don't necessarily agree with his characterization, no," Tagliabue said.

Some of the owners from high-revenue teams said privately on Wednesday that they feel the disparities of which Upshaw and their colleagues spoke might be overstated. Their point: Many of the highest revenue teams are also franchises in which the owners invested heavily and with their own money.

No matter where owners and team officials stand on the issue, though, there certainly is unanimity over the need for continued labor accord between the two sides. The current CBA expires after the 2008 draft and, without an extension, the 2007 season would be known as the year without the cap (every CBA has carried a built-in, no-cap year at the end of the deal). That would be a season minus any kind of ceiling and in which owners would be permitted to spend as much as they wanted.

The goal is an extension through at least the 2011 season.

Negotiations between Upshaw and Harold Henderson, the NFL executive vice president for labor relations, have been ongoing but are likely to be ramped up very soon. The hard, substantive bargaining, frankly, can't come soon enough for some owners.

"It's going to be tough," Rooney said. "But I think we all know it has to get done."

Concluded Richardson: "You look at what's going on around us with other sports. I mean, what choice do we have but to get a deal? You stare at the [specter] of an NFL without labor peace and it's not a very inviting sight."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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