SBJ/March 6 - 12, 2000/No Topic Name

Game’s on after players unionize

A week after making good on their threat to cancel games over a labor dispute, Arena Football League officials have reinstated their season after AFL players agreed to bargain collectively with the league.

Representing the AFL players will be the Arena Football League Players Organizing Committee, which will act as the exclusive collective-bargaining representative for about 600 AFL players. The AFL recognized the group as the players' bargaining agent Wednesday, clearing the way for the AFL to open the season in mid-April after a three-month labor battle with its players.

A week earlier, AFL owners canceled the season after players were unable to win enough support to have the Teamsters act as their collective-bargaining representative. That forced league officials to follow through on promises made a month ago to cancel the season should the players fail to agree to collective bargaining and continue with an antitrust lawsuit filed against AFL owners Feb. 3.

Attorneys for AFL players claim that the league is trying to force the players into a union, a move that would weaken their legal rights regarding the antitrust lawsuit, which claims owners conspired to limit salaries and free agency. The antitrust lawsuit is expected to proceed despite the players' agreement with the AFL to bargain collectively. AFL officials say the lawsuit will not affect the start of the season.

"The Teamsters have indicated that they are no longer interested, and we hear that the players are looking to find other representation," said Jeffrey Kessler, who represents the AFL players in their antitrust lawsuit.

Reinstatement of the season comes at a critical time for the AFL as it begins to raise its profile after years of operating in anonymity. Hanging in the balance of a lost season were a new television contract with TNN and a deal with SFX Sports Group to sell badly needed national sponsorships. The league also is in the second year of a three-year option held by the NFL to buy up to 49 percent of the AFL. Franchise values also have increased substantially in the past year, with AFL expansion fees now at $7 million. Because of the league's growth, Kessler said, AFL owners were never serious about losing an entire season.

"The owners did not want to cancel the season," he said. "They just want to force the players to form a union. There was no cancellation plan being put into place and nothing was done by the AFL."

Arena League officials did not return calls for comment but said in a statement that they will immediately begin to negotiate an interim collective-bargaining agreement for the 2000 season.

Even though the AFL season will begin on time, the league may lose one of its expansion teams for the 2000 season. League officials said the Detroit Fury may bow out of the league for one year because of the inability to sell season tickets for its inaugural season. Should that occur, the AFL would have to create a new 17-team schedule and lose a major market for at least one year.

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