SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/Opinion

NFLPA missed opportunity to gain leverage on owners

When the mediation between the NFL and NFLPA failed to produce a new collective-bargaining agreement, and the lockout finally became a reality, most people blamed the owners. However, I think that the NFLPA really botched this one and missed a real opportunity to force the hand of the NFL during the season.

I am not in either camp. I don’t work for the NFL or any team in any capacity, and I no longer represent any players in any way. I have done both in the past and I see both sides, but the reality is I really do not care who gets what; I just want there to be NFL football. Like most fans, I want a draft, mini-camp, training camp and the season to kick off as scheduled, without the lockout putting a damper on things.

Now, I am not a descendant of Jimmy Hoffa, and I have never been involved in labor negotiations. However, I have negotiated many deals in my 23-year sports business career, and one thing I know to be true is that things always proceed better for your side if you possess more leverage than the other side. Leverage is what allows you to get closer to the deal that you actually want. Fact: The NFL and the owners have more leverage than the NFLPA and the players. The owners can financially withstand a lockout much longer than the majority of the players. Not only are player salaries more of a necessity, the longevity of their careers is always looming in the back of their minds. Couple this with the fact that it is much easier to keep 32 owners on the same page than it is to ensure the solidarity of 1,900 players, and you can see how the scales are tipping toward the owners in the leverage department.

So knowing this, the NFLPA used the entire 2010 season to spin its propaganda to the masses, claiming the NFL is a tyrant and they are the victims. I even read a quote that the NFLPA only wanted to do what was right for the fans. I chuckled when I read this because the fans are not stupid; the NFLPA’s goal is to get their deal. By the way, that’s what their goal should be, just as the NFL should attempt to secure their deal of preference. The problem with the NFLPA’s strategy to get fans to side with them is that tactic does not change the fact that the NFL owners still have more leverage in the negotiations. The NFLPA should have gone for the jugular during the season to win back that leverage.

On Thanksgiving, the NFLPA should have assembled a group of player reps for a press conference for the entire fandom of the NFL to witness. DeMaurice Smith should have laid down the gauntlet and stated that the players had been negotiating in good faith and there was no progress, so unless the NFL and the owners get serious about negotiating, the players would walk out after the last game of the regular season. If there was no consensus between the two parties, and a new CBA was not reached by that time, there would be a work stoppage enforced by the players.

Can you hear the collective jaw of owners dropping in NFL cities across the nation? Do you think any owner would sit still with the possibility of there being no playoffs, and even worse, no Super Bowl? Do you think the leverage would have shifted into the favor of the players?

I am not a lawyer, and I am sure all the legal pundits out there will cry foul and spout out a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo on why this act would have been in violation of the CBA and how there would have been legal action. Who cares? This country and labor unions were built on strikes and work stoppages; this wouldn’t have been the first time a union broke a contract and walked out on management. Besides, do you really think the NFL and its owners would allow for a Super Bowl to not occur? Never mind that, how do you think their billion-dollar network partners would feel about it? It’s not about the legal ramifications, it’s about the leverage. The legality of a work stoppage caused by the players would have been tied up in the legal system well past a new CBA agreement, and it would have been settled prior to any decision, most likely as part of the new CBA.

Such a statement by the NFLPA would have caused the NFL to seriously get back to the tables, make further concessions, and get to a meeting of the minds and a new agreement in order to not jeopardize the playoffs and the crown jewel — the Super Bowl.

Now there is no urgency for the NFL and owners to strike a deal. The union played the decertification card as they had in the past; it’s standard and predictable and a sham. Do you think that scared the NFL owners? I assume they expected just that. So, the fierce offseason war everyone has been expecting is now ramping up and exactly playing into the NFL’s hands. The closer it gets to the season, and to a point where players will not get their paychecks, the more leverage the owners get.

Perhaps if the NFLPA had laid down the gauntlet during the season and done something to actually gain the upper hand, the players would already have a deal, and one much better than I suspect they will end up with when all is said and done.

And more importantly, fans would not be squirming now imagining life without the NFL in the fall. �8;

Lou Imbriano (lou@trinity1.com), former CMO of the New England Patriots and COO of the New England Revolution, is CEO of TrinityOne Sports (Trinity1.com), and a professor of sports marketing at Boston College. Follow him on Twitter @LouImbriano.

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