Mr. Smith goes to the negotiating table

In March, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) made an historic move by electing Washington D.C. power attorney DeMaurice Smith as their new executive director, and skeptics wondered if this was the right time for the union to bring an outsider into a leadership role. All eyes will be watching as he begins negotiation with the NFL on a new labor contract this week in New York.

Smith wowed the NFLPA’s board with an hour-long presentation detailing his plan for their upcoming collective bargaining sessions, as he promised to use his Congressional friends to challenge the league’s long-standing anti-trust exemption in order to obtain a better deal.

The owners have believed for a long time that the players’ cut of the revenue pie has been too big for too long, and opted out of the current agreement last year, which almost guarantees that there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season. With concerns of a slowing economy, the owners feel that escalating salaries within the league could impact the revenue stream for several clubs.

Smith recognizes the economic challenges facing the league, and has requested the NFL to open each team’s financial books. The league’s negotiating team has rejected his request and claims the union has enough information to secure a fair deal.

Many NFL insiders feel the league is at a disadvantage in this upcoming labor negotiation due to the fact that Smith is an unknown entity. He speaks like a politician (insisting on calling the players “businessmen”) and promises the union will maintain a hard line stance in the upcoming labor negotiations.

Everyone involved expects to play football in 2010, albeit without a salary cap, but Smith warns the owners that no new agreement will include a salary cap if the 2010 season is played without one. There is a good possibility that some form of a work stoppage will take place in 2011, either in the form of a players’ strike or an owners’ lockout prior to the start of training camp. Smith pointed out that a lockout would hurt not only the players, but the people and businesses that rely heavily on the NFL to make a living.

If the NFLPA had hired an insider that had a better understanding of the league’s politics and the current state of the labor/management relationship, many believe both parties would find common ground for a new agreement and the NFL would continue to flourish. But this isn’t the feeling anymore, as Smith encourages the players to prepare for war inside the board room.

It should be an interesting negotiation.

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NFL and Comcast close to an agreement on cable distribution deal

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King is reporting that the NFL is close to a deal with Comcast to begin offering the NFL Network on their cable television package. League officials hope to gain momentum with this current agreement and have it carry over to their upcoming negotiations for a new labor agreement with the players association.

King also added that the NFL is on the verge of reaching a two-year contract extension with FOX and CBS to continue broadcasting their Sunday game packages. Many feel that NBC will likely follow suit and agree to a similar deal for their Sunday evening game package sometime before the start of the season.

Here is the breakdown of the potential agreement between the NFL and Comcast:

NFL Network had been carried on a pay sports tier for Comcast’s 24-million subscribers, and the NFL for years has been arguing its channel should be on the regular digital cable package with the ESPNs and CNNs of the cable TV world. Now that is close to happening. The deal would mean that instead of paying about $7 per month for the channel and other pay-TV sports channels, Comcast subscribers will get NFL Network with its regular digital package — and it will increase the number of TV homes the Network is seen in from about 35 million to close to 50 million. More importantly, it could well pave the way for the NFL to make deals with other cable companies similarly chapped at the league’s demand for huge rights fees for a sports channel with only 24 hours of NFL regular-season game programming per year.

Many in the league office feared that without a wider distribution of the NFL Network, the owners would have moved to cease operations of the channel. They were getting frustrated with the lack of movement in their five-year battle against Comcast on the network’s distribution rights.

The NFL will return to the negotiating table later this spring, as talks between the league and the NFL players association will begin on coming to a new collection bargaining agreement.

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