Column: No griping about the NFL union this time
On the eve of the opening of NFL training camps, a number of so-called experts took the opportunity to comment on the CBA that was approved in August 2011. Their almost unanimous conclusion was the league took the players to the woodshed. Whether that's true or false depends on the prism through which you view labor negotiations.
There is little doubt that teams are making more money today than they did prior to 2011. The publicly owned Green Bay Packers, the only NFL team that is required to divulge financial information, had a net income of $23.3 million in the two years prior to the current CBA and $85.8 million in the two years since. All teams are more profitable today than they were prior to 2011, due in part to increased revenues.
But there's no doubt that players, especially rookies, are earning less today than they did under the old deal. Sam Bradford, the Oklahoma quarterback who was the last number one pick under the old CBA, received $50 million in guaranteed money before taking a single snap in the NFL. The first number one pick under the new CBA, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, received a "mere" $22 million in guaranteed money. Not the mother lode Bradford received, but we're unlikely to find Newton in the welfare line anytime soon.
The majority of rookie players are locked into average annual salaries of around $500,000 per year for the first three years. That compares favorably with MLB players, where the minimum salary of $500,000 is usually the maximum until arbitration kicks in after three years of service. And unlike NFL players, baseball players must first spend on average 3-5 years in the Minor Leagues where they earn from $800-2,500 per month during the five-month season.
It's not just the rookie players who took a hit under the new CBA. Stars such as Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco and Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan can still negotiate $100 million contracts, although unlike their MLB counterparts, those dollars aren't all guaranteed. But veteran NFL players have been priced out of the market, similar to MLB where a rookie earning $500,000 can contribute as much to winning as a veteran making $6-7 million per year.
However, numbers alone don't tell the entire story. There were a number of non-financial gains under the new CBA that are meaningful to the players' physical health and wellbeing, although admittedly they do not impact the owners' bottom line. Among those benefits are a shorter offseason training program, limits on contact in practices and the elimination of two-a-days during training camp. Additional monetary considerations for current players include more liberal retirement benefits and increased medical coverage. The NFL also agreed to beef up retirement benefits for pre-1993 players. Unlike salaries, the financial cost of such items is neither particularly burdensome nor will it be felt immediately.
Prior to the existing CBA, the players were earning approximately 60 percent of overall league revenue, the highest in any Major League team sport. The owners were determined to reduce that number to no worse than an even split. They locked out the players for four months and were willing to sacrifice a portion of the season, if necessary, to accomplish their goals. The players, on the other hand, were unwilling to forfeit a single paycheck; hence, they agreed to reduce their share of revenue to 48 percent.
Contrast that position with MLB players during the eight work stoppages in baseball between 1972 and 1994. Thanks to the leadership of Marvin Miller and Don Fehr, players always stood united and were determined to stay out as long as necessary to obtain a fair deal. In fairness to NFL players, the average career of their MLB counterparts is 50 percent greater than theirs - six vs. four years. Therefore, the loss of any portion of a season would impact a football player to a greater extent than it would a baseball player.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has been criticized, particularly by agents, for having "failed" the players during the last CBA negotiations. Even Marvin Miller, during my many conversations with him, questioned the leadership players received from their union. But given the realities that existed in 2011, the current deal appears to be the best they could have gotten.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.