02.28.11

NFL Owners' Lockout Ego Trip

With record TV ratings last season, the National Football League may be in its best shape ever. So why are the teams' owners about to lock the players out over revenue? It all comes down to greed, says Buzz Bissinger.

It appears more and more likely that the owners of the National Football League will initiate a lockout of its players at midnight this Friday as the result of a highly contentious labor dispute over a new collective-bargaining agreement.

The revenue pool in the NFL now is about $9 billion. Owners take $1 billion of that amount off the top as a “credit” for expenses and are seeking roughly an additional $1.4 billion because of today’s economic realities. The owners propose that the players receive the same cut of revenue as they do now, 60 percent, but it would be a significantly smaller pot.

The owners argue that the increased credit would grow the game with investment in new stadiums, which they say ultimately would mean more revenue for everyone. The players reportedly offered a 50-50 split of total revenue and an incremental share of the new revenue, which the the owners rejected. The one issue that both sides agree on is that rookie salaries for top college stars are too big. But big surprise—neither side can agree on how to resolve it.

Here is a handy guide of key figures to help sort out which side is in the right and which one in the wrong.

32.9 = the total value of NFL franchises, in billions, in 2010 (Forbes magazine).

To begin a lockout is silly enough. To cancel the season would be suicidal, and not even the owners’ sense of entitlement and ego carry that far. Maybe.

1.02 = the average value of each NFL franchise, in billions, as of summer 2010. The value dropped 2 percent, the first drop since 1998 (Forbes magazine).

360 = the percentage appreciation in the value of the average NFL franchise from 1998 to 2008 ( The Economics of NFL Team Ownership by economics professors Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel of the University of Chicago, at the request of the NFL Players Association).

19 = how many former NFL players have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other memory-related diseases, at a rate 19 times that of the normal rate for men between the ages of 30 and 49 (University of Michigan Institute for Social Research).

18 = the number of games that NFL owners, to increase revenue, want teams to play, up from the current 16, proof positive that all the new rules that have been instituted over concussions by the league have been done for public-relations purposes or to stave off lawsuits.

95.8 = amount of television revenue (in millions) taken in by each NFL club last season from CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Fox. An additional $45.8 million each is generated by various other sources for a total of approximately $141.6 million per team (NFL Players Association).

1.896 = average salary for NFL players in millions in 2009. Despite the average, obviously skewed by salaries of major stars, many NFL players do not make $1 million in their careers after taxes. The average salary for Major League Baseball players is roughly $3.297 million. The average salary for National Basketball Association players is about $5.85 million. (CBSSports.com, NBA.com, USA Today).

1 = number of teams that have opened their books to NFL Players Association so the union can see what income and revenue are. Only one of the 32 teams releases financials, the Green Bay Packers, because it is community-owned. The chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Jay Rockefeller, recently urged the owners to release the information (Yahoo, The Washington Post).

16 = number of owners who are billionaires either because of personal worth or the value of their teams (Forbes).

5,400 = amount that Bud Adams, owner of the Tennessee Titans, has multiplied his investment after inflation since buying the original Houston Oilers in 1960 for $25,000 (Forbes).

8 = amount in billions of tax dollars that have been paid for active stadiums, more than half of the overall amount spent on construction and infrastructure. In some cases, municipalities are responsible for millions of dollars of debt on stadiums that no longer exist (The New York Times).

2 = Number of teams that lost money in the 2009 season: $7.7 million for the Miami Dolphins and $2.9 million for the Detroit Lions (Forbes).

33.4 = average team operating income in 2009, in millions, an increase of more than 1,000 percent since 1987 (NFL Players Association).

3.3 = average career length of a player in the NFL. Running backs have average careers of 2.57 years, wide receivers 2.81 years, and cornerbacks 2.94 years (Livestrong.com)

28 = number of NFL games in the top 30 rated shows among all programming on television in 2010 (ColdHardFootballFacts.com)

What these numbers point to is the greed of owners, the vast majority of whom cannot possibly say with a straight face that they purchased an NFL team to make a killing anyway on a year-to-year operational basis. After running out of all the other acquisitions that wealthy men make to fill up their strange lives, the cars and houses and yachts and impressionist paintings, most bought these teams as some new gadget. But since they are wealthy men, they also know how to grind out a buck.

They have in general been ruthless in placing a double-barreled shotgun squarely against the forehead of municipality after municipality, threatening to leave unless they received hundreds of millions back in public subsidies for new stadiums or renovations. Their even bringing up the idea of an 18-game schedule makes it obvious that their concern for the physical welfare of players is nada, no matter how many times they pat a player’s rump and mumble the aphorism that when the tough get going the going gets tough. The disregard only reinforces that players are just human livestock for most owners, some prized, some shipped out, some just worked until they break down. The game is physically brutal. The players know that and accept that, but it’s also one of the reasons the average shelf life of a player is less than four years. They need to get as much as they can when they can.

When you look at the record television ratings last season, when you look at the exponential rise in the value of franchises despite a slight drop in 2009, the league may be in the best shape it ever has been. To begin a lockout on Friday is silly enough. To cancel the upcoming season would be suicidal, and not even the owners’ sense of entitlement and ego carry that far.

Maybe.

Because these boys have not been part of the real world for quite some time.

If an NFL owner doesn’t like what is happening, the recourse is simple—sell the team at an enormous profit. Otherwise stop the Mother Teresa vow of poverty and pay the players what they are worth. Which is every penny of what they get now, a 60 percent share of a revenue base that is $8 billion and surely will continue to grow.

As far I know there isn’t a single owner who does what a player does: Play the game. That is somewhat important. Without them, I just don’t think a pillow fight between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder over who gets to play quarterback in powder puff football would have the same thrill.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.