Players in U.S. sports leagues prepare for lockouts

By Ben Klayman

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The threat of lockouts looms over major U.S. professional sports leagues as soon as next year as team owners push to cut salary costs in the face of a weak economy, players' union leaders warned on Saturday.

Collective bargaining agreements between players and owners for the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball are set to expire next year, while the National Hockey League players' union has the option to extend its deal for another year beyond next season.

"These are kind of ominous times," Billy Hunter, executive director for the National Basketball Players Association, said of the globally weak economy.

"We may end up with another lockout," he added, referring to the last lockout by NBA owners in 1998. Hunter said the previous lockout cost the players about $500 million and the owners about $1 billion.

Many U.S. sports leagues and organizations have seen attendance and sponsorship revenue fall over the past year as fans and companies cut spending. Baseball attendance is down 1 to 2 percent this season, MLB general counsel Thomas Ostertag said during a management panel at the conference.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said in February the league would lose about $400 million this year due to the sluggish economy and a crippling labor deal, which expires next summer. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has also said his league needs to reduce player costs to help offset rising operating costs.

Hunter said the NBA's proposal for a new labor deal was "draconian" and would depress player salaries significantly. With the league pushing to expand overseas revenue, it does not want to share as much of a growing pie, he said.

"If they could roll salaries back to 1960s' levels, they would do that," he said.

NHL LOCKOUT AS MODEL?

Player salaries have surged since the 1960s, due to free agency, league expansion and increased television, sponsorship and merchandise revenues. Annual salaries now average about $2.9 million for Major League Baseball, $1.9 million for the NHL, $1.8 million for the NFL and about $5 million for the NBA.

Salaries can vary widely, with some earning considerably less than the average and a number of star players making over $20 million a year.

The value of sports franchises has also expanded greatly in recent decades and many team owners are multimillionaires.

Hunter said the salary rollback that resulted from the NHL's 2004-2005 lockout of its players had led owners in other leagues, including the NBA, to want the same thing. The NHL is the only major North American sports league to lose an entire season to a strike or lockout.

Richard Buchanan, the NBA's general counsel, would not characterize the talks but said there was plenty of time to reach a new deal.

"We don't feel that we have a sustainable business model," he said of the current labor deal. "The NBA does not have a revenue generation problem, the NBA has an expense problem."

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said his union was also preparing its members for a lockout when its deal expires in March 2011. "It can only be called a massive rollback when management proposes that the players give them back nearly $1 billion," he said.

Dennis Curran, the NFL's general counsel, said the existing labor deal was "not a sustainable system."

Baseball's labor deal expires in December 2011, but MLB Players Association executive director Michael Weiner said he did not know how smoothly talks would go with the owners.

In 2006, the union reached a deal with owners two months before the existing deal was set to expire. The sport had experienced several strikes and lockouts in previous decades, including a strike that led to cancellation of the 1994 World Series and lingering fan anger.

Talks for the newest deal will begin sometime between this fall and next spring, Weiner said. He warned a fair deal was more important than avoiding a strike or lockout.

"Our goal is not to get an agreement without a stoppage," he said. "Our goal is to serve our members."

(Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Peter Cooney)