NFL lockout: Beware clash of owners

NFL lockout shows signs of ending. But if NFL lockout isn't settled, it could be because of owner-vs.-owner issues.

Brandon Wade/AP/File
NFL team owners Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys (right) and Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins (center) enjoy a slice of pizza with Papa John’s founder John Schnatter as part of a Papa John’s video shoot at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 1, 2010. Jones and Snyder, while partners with Papa John’s, disagree on how much money teams should spend on their franchises. That dispute could lengthen the NFL lockout.

ST. LOUIS – As the longest work stoppage in NFL history reached the 100-day marker on Thursday, there were significant signals coming out of suburban Boston that the lockout could be reaching its final days.

The reports that have leaked out of the ongoing contract talks between the owners and players are sounding as favorable as we've heard in the last few months. Instead of the angry saber rattling that characterized the early days of this lockout, the gloom and doom has been replaced with upbeat phrases like "heading in the right direction" and "very fruitful" and the all-important "close."

Sometimes it's dangerous to characterize the progress (or lack thereof) of ongoing negotiations. But from all the most knowledgeable conversations we've heard, a real breakthrough has happened and a season that once looked like it could be at risk is showing signs of life.

The only way a deal doesn't get done now is if somebody out there simply wants to pick a fight and send thislockout into a death spiral that will surely eat up games, profits and a ton of public goodwill.

And if it does happen, if we see this lockout extended into August or September, it won't be that there's some nasty issue on the table that will create another hostile owner-vs.-player hissy fit.

If these negotiations fall apart now, it will be because of a contentious class warfare among the owners. It could be a struggle of wills and business priorities between high-revenue owners such as Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder and lower-revenue owners such as Ralph Wilson and Mike Brown.

"This owner-vs.-owner issue reared its ugly head earlier this week," Webster University associate professor Patrick Rishe said. "It's the small-market guys who are at the bottom of the league in franchise value, who could cause this thing to fall apart, and the squawking has been there for a while."

What they're probably squawking about is a particular proposal on the table that mandates that every franchise must spend nearly 100 percent of whatever the maximum annual salary cap figures might be. In the past there has been a maximum amount that a franchise could spend but never a mechanism in place to force them to spend up to that limit. Many of the lower-revenue owners historically have been less enthusiastic about spending their revenue-shared profits up to the limit of the salary cap. And much like the dispute in baseball where big-market owners were outraged when they learned the frugal ways of small-market owners, the NFL is facing the same sort of trouble among its owners.

"It's just like in baseball where ownerships like the (big-spending) Yankees and Red Sox complain that lower-revenue teams collect on revenue sharing they get from the pockets of the big-money teams but don't re-invest it on the product," said Rishe, who teaches economics at the George Herbert Walker School of Business at Webster University and writes about sports business for "Remember the stories of teams like Florida and Pittsburgh in baseball were pocketing all the money that they were getting from the revenue sharing from big-market teams? Well now in the NFL you have guys like (Washington's) Daniel Snyder and (Dallas') Jerry Jones who are fed up with some of the smaller market teams not spending what they should."

So the cold hard facts are this: If this deal is going to get done over the next two weeks, it will be because commissioner Roger Goodell has played the good politician and ended the infighting between the 32 owners. Goodell's job will be making sure that he has the necessary 24 owners needed to approve a deal. But there is a legitimate concern that there might be enough disgruntled cliques of lower-revenue owners or high-revenue owners arguing with each other that whatever deal is approved at the bargaining table could be scuttled in an ownership board room.

It's Goodell's job to get his 32 owners to remember the bedrock socialism practices that old-school owners such as the late Wellington Mara once championed. The problem is there are far more contemporary owners who think more like Jones than Mara. The age of sharing the wealth in the NFL is no longer as popular anymore. Thinking of what's best for the entire league has been lost on owners who are worried about having to foot the bill on the construction of their new football palaces or shrinking attendance figures or steep debt service or figuring out how to break their leases and being the first franchise in line to escape to the limitless wealth of relocation to Los Angeles.

There are far more owners who might be eager to reject the spread-the-wealth philosophies that have been a part of the NFL's legendary successful business plan for nearly 40 years.

If we're going to have an uninterrupted NFL season, it will be because Goodell proves to be the great salesman who reminds his guys that their successful past is the key to their bountiful future.

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