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NFL lockout: If Friday's deadline passes, is the 2011 season doomed?

Thursday brought some positive news in the bid to avoid an NFL lockout, but even if Friday's deadline passes without a deal, there could be more opportunities ahead.

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The idea is that these lawsuits – and the specter that a judge could rule in favor of the players – would give the players more leverage to get a better deal. Otherwise, the owners would hold virtually all the cards and the union would have little ability to budge them from their demands.

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In that way, the lockout and the lawsuits expected to accompany it would merely mark a new phase of negotiation, says Michael LeRoy, a sports labor expert at University of Illinois. Traditional, face-to-face negotiations will have failed and the party seen as being in the more difficult position – the players – are merely seeking new ways to change the dynamic.

Speaking generally and not of this case, the “Supreme Court says impasse is not the end of bargaining, [but is] a device to advance the relationship,” says Mr. LeRoy. “That's what's going on – a way of redefining the relationship. It appears at the moment to be perilous and fraught with a doomsday atmosphere, but the big picture is, it's about altering the relationship.”

Owners stuck in

The owners are determined to alter the relationship. Of the NFL’s $9 billion in revenues, the owners get $1 billion to “grow the game” and the remaining pot is split between the players (57 percent) and the owners (43 percent). The owners want another billion dollars taken out of the pot they split with the players.

They’ve offered to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games – growing overall revenue so that players notice no hit to their paychecks. Players complain of an increased risk of injury and the prospect of doing more work for the same money. Owners also want a rookie wage scale, among other concessions.

In some respects, the owners are well positioned to stay firm until the players buckle. Anticipating a lockout, the owners negotiated TV deals that ensured that they will be paid $4 billion even if no games are played.

Yet the players are also challenging that agreement. If a federal judge rules in their favor and issues an injunction against the owners receiving that money, the decision could change the entire course of the lockout.

Any of the legal maneuverings could yield a deal. A similar antitrust lawsuit by the players in 1993 led to a new labor agreement. Short of that, public pressure will continue to mount until games begin to fall off the calendar.

“If history is the guide, the real crunch time is the start of the season and about five or six weeks in,” says LeRoy. “That's when it's fish or cut bait for having a season.”

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