American football, the most watched sport in the US, could be canceled next year over a long-running dispute between owners and players, which a union leader warns this weekend will almost certainly result in a lockout beginning in March.
The Super Bowl final would go ahead in February as planned, but everything from March onwards would be halted, from summer training camps through to the planned start of the professional 32-team, four-month season in September.
Given the hundreds of millions of dollars that team owners would lose and pressure on them from TV companies, the chances of a deal being struck are high, but US sports have been brought to a standstill in the recent past by such disputes, including the loss of the 1994-1995 baseball season and the 2004-2005 ice hockey season.
In an interview to be broadcast this weekend on Bloomberg television, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, issued his strongest warning yet, saying a lockout is a “near certainty.”
He put the loss in wages to players at US$5 billion, and said team owners and local economies would also suffer.
“The magnitude of the loss would be at the very least about US$160 million to US$170 million per team city,” Smith said.
The team owners are seeking to cut wages, saying they are too high at a time when the cost of running teams is rising. Players get an average of US$1.5 million a year.
The owners, who want the players’ overall pot cut by US$1 billion, are bringing existing contracts to an end in February, two years early. The players are demanding the contracts be honored.
The owners have the advantage of an extraordinary deal with television companies in which they get US$4 billion whether games are played or not, but the players’ union has power, too — the public outcry that would result from a lockout.
“We know they have an economic leverage over us. Those TV contracts [are] a huge economic hammer that hangs over the players, but when it does come to leverage, about understanding the necessity of sacrifice, teamwork, our players believe they are this game,” Smith said. “I believe that we have a tremendous amount of leverage.”
The union has tried to recruit the support of members of Congress as well as the White House, but has had only limited success so far.
Ken Gude, who worked for the Washington Redskins in 2000 and now works at the Democratic-friendly think tank Center for American Progress, said yesterday: “I can’t actually believe the NFL would be stupid enough to jeopardize its position with the American people in a period of difficult economic times when they argue over the allocation of millions of dollars.”
If the lockout goes ahead, players will stop being paid from March. The annual draft, a high-profile event where teams select new players, would go ahead in the spring, but the training camps in the summer would not.
The next season is scheduled to begin on Sept. 9. The playing season is relatively short, ending on Jan. 2, with the Super Bowl the following month and teams play relatively few games.
One compromise under consideration is that the season be extended from 16 games to 18, which would give the players extra money to make up for the pay cut, but would mean two more games, with the attendant injury risks. The average career of a professional American football player is only 3.6 seasons.
The NFL has criticized the union for trying to politicize the issue.
“The union’s request for state and local political leaders to intercede in the negotiations ignores and denigrates the serious and far more substantial problems that those leaders, and that state and local workers across the country, face,” an NFL statement said.
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