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NFL Exec VP & General Counsel Jeff Pash raised the possibility yesterday that the NFL may not lock players out on March 4, when the CBA is set to expire. While it has been widely expected that the NFL will lock players out after midnight, Pash said during an update on CBA negotiations, "If you are making progress (toward a new deal) you can stop the clock." Pash spent much of the press conference calling for more negotiations and saying that both players and the league would be hurt economically the longer there is no agreement. Bob Batterman, the league's outside labor attorney, talked to reporters after the press conference and explained that it was possible to extend the deadline if the two sides were close, although he did not characterize that as a likely scenario. "We have the option to lockout," Batterman said. "We have the option -- if the parties at 5 in the afternoon on March 3 ... are close and they think they need another day or two to actually get it done ... but they think they can get it done. Of course, they can stop the clock. You just agree to freeze everything where it is and treat March 4th and March 5th ... as if it was March 3rd," he said. The NFL has done this in the past, extending the deadline to get a deal done in ‘06. The deadline was extended about a week before agreeing to the current CBA. Meanwhile, Batterman said the owners were unified in wanting a new economic system. "The only other time I have seen owners as unified as they are here is in 2004 and '05 in hockey, where there was also complete unity," said Batterman, who was outside labor counsel to the NHL during the '04-05 NHL lockout (Liz Mullen, SportsBusiness Journal).
LET'S TALK: USA TODAY's Sean Leahy notes Pash issued a new call for "intensive, serious and ongoing negotiations." Pash: "The time has come for both parties to make a shared commitment and devote all their energy to accomplish a successful negotiation by the beginning of March." Pash "repeated his refrain that the financial consequences from even a short lockout would be severe." He added that it is "time to remove the rhetoric from the labor fight." Leahy writes Pash's comments represent the "latest round of saber rattling that likely will continue today" as NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith is scheduled to address the media (USA TODAY, 2/3). Pash said of the talks, "What we're going to see, I hope, is that we're going to have the litigators and lobbyists stand down and the negotiators take center stage. We both have a lot to lose and we both have a lot to gain. When you have a solution like that, it should be relatively easy to get to a meeting of the minds. We've always done so in the past." Pash added NFLPA President Kevin Mawae "said last week that they got a great deal in '06." Pash: "There's no disagreement that this is an unbalanced agreement that needs to be reset. It's just a question of where the reset is" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 2/3). Pash noted that both sides "should have an incentive to come up with a new system that will help the NFL and its players prosper." He added that while "salaries to players have doubled in the past 10 years," a new system "could allow the players to see that kind of growth in salary for the next 10 years" (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 2/3). Pash acknowledged that the NFL "has made concessions in talks with the union, but he declined to discuss what they were." He added that "if two more regular-season games were added, the players would benefit financially because there would be more revenue to share and potentially more players in the league" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/3).
GROWING THE GAME: Pash "explained management's need for what the union claims is an 18 percent rollback in pay as a response to rising costs and dwindling income." He claimed that "money would be used to grow the game in many ways, including internationally." His theory was that this "would create 'shared opportunities' for players and owners and, in the long run, they'd all make more money." In Boston, Ron Borges writes the "only problem is the average player's career lasts 3 1/2 years and is estimated to go down to 2.8 years if management adds two more regular-season games as they are proposing while the average owner is around for 3 1/2 decades." Pash also claimed that the NFLPA "does not dispute that expenses are up and revenue is down" (BOSTON HERALD, 2/3). Pash "detailed what 'growing the pie' might entail." He said that this "could mean more games in London -- and a possible franchise there -- as well as bigger rosters and better benefits and health-and-safety research" (L.A. TIMES, 2/3).
FRANCHISE TAGS AROUND THE CORNER: In Boston, Greg Bedard reported "barring some sort of court challenge by the players' union -- and it would likely be fruitless -- NFL teams will be able to use the franchise and/or transition tags in eight days." There has been "some discrepancy on whether the tags could be used this year and applied to the 2011 season, mostly from the union side." But NFL Management Council Senior VP/Labor Relations Peter Ruocco said that the league "has told teams they can apply the tags in a 14-day window beginning Feb. 10." The NFL "has told teams the tag rules would be the same as they were in the 2010 uncapped league year: one franchise and/or one transition tag at their disposal." When asked "why the league wouldn't wait until a new agreement is in place," Ruocco said, "Because the window to tag them is now" (BOSTON.com, 2/2). Meanwhile, an NFL official said that an arbitrator yesterday "rejected a grievance by the union attempting to force the league to pay for health insurance for the players after the expiration of the labor deal and potentially during a work stoppage" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 2/2).
LABOR ISSUE OVERSHADOWING SUPER BOWL? With Goodell being featured on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, ESPN's "Around The Horn" wondered whether the labor situation is bigger than the Super Bowl. ESPN's Bomani Jones it is "absolutely" bigger than the Super Bowl, and the SI cover "is an indication of that." Jones: "They didn't do that because they just decided people wanted to see Roger Goodell. They did that because they think that's where people's hearts and minds are. The union is in Dallas and they're doing their best to be seen." Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw said, "The labor issue does hang over everything. The players talk about it. They don't really want to answer questions about it. It's on their minds, it's on the fans' minds." But ESPN's J.A. Adande said, "I don't think the general public will be generally concerned until we get to the point where they're about to lose games" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 2/2).
NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith admitted the "rhetoric has been high" between the union and the NFL, but there also "isn't two days" that go by without communication between himself and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Smith said of reaching a new CBA with the league, "We've got a lot of work to do, but we're going to do it. Look, we have to get this done. There's not a fan in America, there's not a player in America that can point to anything that justifies a lockout. Nothing. If there is something, if there are allusions to the dot-com crash and the housing market crash, then it seems to me if that's where they are then there is, frankly, even more of a justification and an obligation for financial transparency than when we started" ("SportsCenter," ESPN, 2/2). In Dallas, Tim Cowlishaw wrote, "Please don't put the looming 'work stoppage' on players. They want to maintain status quo. It's the far wealthier set of owners that seeks to change the system." The owners "still regret the day in 2006 they changed the rules on 'designated revenues' and took, essentially, a $1 billion settlement from the players to let them in on all revenues" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 2/2). However, in K.C., Sam Mellinger writes, "Maybe the players can win on safety, or a rookie wage scale or better long-term health care. Maybe it’s enough that Smith and other union leaders can stand in front of reporters and cameras and put on a strong face. But nobody -- not even some players, when they speak honestly and privately -- expects this to be anything other than a rout for the owners" (K.C. STAR, 2/3).
TAKING ANOTHER SHOT: YAHOO SPORTS' Doug Farrar reported the NFLPA has "put together a follow-up ad," titled "Let It Air," to the "Let Us Play" spot that CBS refused to air this Saturday. NFLPA Assistant Exec Dir for External Affairs George Atallah said that he intended to "submit the new ad to CBS" yesterday, "effectively asking CBS to air an ad asking them to air an ad that they won't air." The NFLPA attempted to air the "Let Us Play" commercial during CBS College Sports' coverage of the union's college All-Star Game on Saturday. Atallah said, "We are the official sponsors of this game. ... The same people who put on the Texas vs. the Nation game came to us and said, ‘Hey -- we want the Texas vs. the Nation game to turn into the NFLPA College All-Star Game. So, our original contract was with the organizers and promoters of that game. Those organizers and promoters went to CBS College Sports and asked, ‘Do you want to air this game under certain conditions?', and they agreed. One of those conditions was that we would get two minutes of airtime during the game." Atallah added, "There were no content restrictions, barring anything offensive or explicit. ... CBS has said that they claimed to have denied the ad last October, but we didn't even submit the ad until January" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 2/2).
An AP-Knowledge Networks poll released today shows “only lukewarm backing at best for a switch from 16 to 18 regular-season games, one of the NFL's key -- and easiest-to-understand -- proposals in its labor negotiations with the players' union,” according to Howard Fendrich of the AP. Of 1,125 adults surveyed, 27% “strongly favor or somewhat favor adding two regular-season games and dropping two preseason games.” When the group was narrowed to 482 people identified as NFL fans, “support for the change rises to a total of 45 percent -- yet only 18 percent who strongly favor it.” Among those surveyed, 41% called football “their favorite sport to watch.” The online poll was conducted Jan. 21-26 (AP, 2/3).
CHIMIMG IN: NFL Exec VP & General Counsel Jeff Pash yesterday said, "We do think the economics of an 18-game season could be compelling. The best thing about an 18-game season is it is responsive to fan interest, and if fans have been clear on anything it's that they have little use for preseason games." But Steelers LB James Harrison said, “I don't think it's a good thing if you're so worried about player safety." In Pittsburgh, Scott Brown notes players “have been outspoken in their opposition because regular-season games generally exact a higher physical toll than preseason games.” Harrison: "The way these guys' bodies are feeling, and you're talking about adding two more games to that? It's going to be a far cry to get a guy through a whole season. The biggest thing that hurt (the proposal) is when Mr. (Dan) Rooney came out and said he'd rather stay at a 16-game season, they don't need the money." Brown notes Rooney “emerged as a lone -- though powerful -- dissenting voice among owners several weeks ago when he expressed opposition to an 18-game schedule.” Steelers S Troy Polamalu said, "That meant a lot" (Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 2/3). Steelers WR Hines Ward said of Rooney, “He’s just speaking what we really feel about it. Nobody wants 18 games. He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t care about that extra money. He’s worried about his players and their safety” (Bergen RECORD, 2/3).
ADDITIONAL CHANGES IN SIGHT? ESPN.com’s John Clayton wrote he is “sure” the NFL will expand its playoff field “once it expands to an 18-game schedule.” Sixteen teams “might be too many, but 14 teams might be a fair compromise.” Clayton: “Fourteen playoff teams would be plenty. There were only 15 teams with winning records this season” (ESPN.com, 2/2).
The upcoming Canadiens-Flames Heritage Classic in Calgary is a "second-class citizen" compared to the annual NHL Winter Classic, according to Stu Hackel of SI.com. In the run-up to the Winter Classic, the NHL "did all it could and more to promote the event, the teams, the players, the venue -- you name it." But with the Feb. 20 Heritage Classic rapidly approaching, a search on the NHL's media website "reveals all of eight press releases." The league's "big promotional push, which apparently began [Tuesday], seems to be a big 18-wheel trailer truck filled with the ice making equipment that is driving from Toronto to Calgary and stopping at points in between." The "afterthought nature of the NHL's limp promotional effort is compounded by a double indignity in the fact that this truck won't be motoring east to help promote the game in the town of one of the participating teams." There is a "nagging sense the Heritage Classic is a burden for the league, an obligation to the sport in its birthplace that won't bring them any tangible benefit in U.S. TV ratings, sponsorships or merchandise sales." Canada is a "mature hockey market and the growth possibilities in the U.S. seems to inspire the league far more." But the "relative negligence is not just obvious, it doesn't serve the league's own interests." Hackel: "This is a cross-border business and there's much to gain by promoting a unique game like the one in Calgary -- not the least of which is improving the league's image" (SI.com, 2/2).
SHINING STARS: Last week's NHL All-Star Weekend in Raleigh posted significant increases in viewership in the U.S. and Canada, an all-time record for video starts on NHL.com and the best retail performance for a U.S.-based All-Star Game in seven years. The league also saw a 12% increase in sponsorship revenue over the '09 All-Star Game in Montreal and a 42% increase over the '08 game in Atlanta. Overall retail sales were the third-best in history for a U.S.-based All-Star Game, as sales were up 20% over '08 and 27% over '07. More than 31,000 people attended the NHL Fan Fair event in Raleigh over the weekend (NHL).