NEW YORK – A year from now, NFL fans could be seeing a lockout instead of a sellout.
No pro football — don't scoff at the possibility. Both the owners, who opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, and the players are firmly entrenched for long, often fruitless negotiations. They haven't really gotten down to serious talks yet, and most everyone believes that won't occur until after the Super Bowl.
While the NFL season gets under way this weekend, here are key elements in a disturbing scenario that next year could lead to the first NFL labor stoppage since 1987 (remember replacement games?):
Q: Who are the key figures?
A: Although there are many lawyers and economic experts involved on both sides, the burden to reach a deal falls on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. Both are the leaders in such negotiations for the first time, after a history of accord between Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw.
Q: What is the main issue?
A: Money, naturally, and how to divide it. The players currently get 59.6 percent of designated revenues, a number agreed to in the 2006 CBA. The owners have found that onerous, claiming they have huge debts for building new stadiums and starting up NFL Network and other ventures, making it impossible to be profitable.
The NFLPA says, basically, prove it by opening the books of all 32 teams. Goodell counters by saying the players already have total knowledge of NFL revenues and expenses, as called for in the agreement.
Q: What are the owners asking for?
A: If the NFL, buoyed by its massive TV contracts, generates nearly $8 billion in revenues annually, about $1 billion of that is taken off the top for operating expenses. Of the rest, the players would get their percentage, leaving the owners with 40 percent, which they argue is too little.
So the owners want another huge chunk (about $1.3 billion) to go into their coffers before the players get their cut.
The owners also are eager to add two regular-season games and drop two from preseason, thus forcing the networks to ante up more money. The higher revenues from the extra games would mean more overall money in the pot for the players, too.
Q: What are the players asking for?
A: They would settle for the status quo should no agreement be reached, something the owners are certain to balk at. The players are adamant they won't take any sort of pay cut.
Should the NFL extend the regular season by two games, the players want more money and bigger rosters. They already find it a struggle to stay healthy for 16 games and then, for the better teams, the playoffs.
Q: Does either side have a "war chest" in case of a lockout or strike?
A: Yes, they both do.
The league got an extension of its TV deals with Fox, CBS and DirecTV that pays it in 2011 even if no games are played. While the NFL eventually would have to make good on those payments by providing games to telecast in future years, they have a tremendous flow of cash during a time when there won't be money coming in from ticket sales and sponsors.
Smith has been warning players since he took office in early 2009 to put aside money in case of a stoppage. Most players have done exactly that, with portions of paychecks being saved by many.
Q: What about a potential rookie wage scale?
A: This is one subject on which agreement could come quickly. The owners want to drive down the signing bonuses and exorbitant contracts paid to high first-round draft picks, and they've been unable to do it on their own.
Veteran players who see the megabucks being paid to untested college kids prefer to see that money spread to them. It's not inconceivable that a significant portion of those dollars could wind up in their pockets under a new CBA.
While Smith has said he'd never accept a rookie wage scale, his constituency probably doesn't feel the same way.
Q: What about the retired players, especially those from before 1993 who have so few benefits and pension funds?
A: Goodell has promised those players will be taken care of once an agreement is reached. The NFLPA is skeptical, citing what it considers a poor record for the NFL in helping "its pioneers."
Not compensating those players, many of whom have major health issues resulting from their playing careers, would be a damaging move by the league and could raise the ire of the public.
Q: When might the fans look for a solution — or at least a strong attempt to reach one?
A: Certainly not before the current CBA runs out in March, and probably not until late spring or early summer 2011. Yes, that is cutting it close.