NFL sits alone in peace, prosperity

No recent labor strife. Few scandals. Among the four major sports, only the NFL can say that.

Published April 29, 2005

TAMPA - Major League Baseball's credibility might be shrinking faster than its sluggers, hurt by a steroid scandal that inflated more than home run records.

The NBA could be headed for another lockout, and a glut of high school hoopsters making a 40-inch vertical jump to the pros might have diminished the quality of play.

The NHL has fallen through the ice, becoming the first major sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

So what in the wide world of sports would you do without the NFL? Last month, as the other major sports leagues floundered like fish on a sidewalk, millionaire NFL owners sipped from umbrella drinks, watched whales frolic in the Pacific Ocean and lived like kings for a week in Kapalua, Hawaii.

This is what you call a spring owners' meeting, NFL style. It was an appropriate venue for the most popular major sports league, where there is rarely trouble in paradise.

Paid attendance in the NFL reached record levels for the third consecutive season. The playoffs were the most-watched in six years, and the Super Bowl was the fifth most-watched show in television history, with more viewers than voters in the 2004 presidential election.

In the NFL, networks sell a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl, which has become a national holiday, for $2.4-million. And thanks to an extraordinarily cooperative relationship between the NFL and its players' union, led by Gene Upshaw, the last work stoppage was in 1987. Former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell was recently asked what he believed was the only thing that could take down the NFL.

"Greed," he said. In fact, the NFL might be facing its biggest challenge in several years. The current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2007 season, but negotiations with the players' union about how to disburse revenues are expected to produce an agreement soon.

If not, the 2007 season would be played without a salary cap, which could lead to the type of unrestrained spending that some analysts believe has hurt baseball. The union has asked for more revenues to be included in calculating total player salaries while the league wants to account for the increasing expense of debt service on new stadiums.

"Many, many people share the credit for the NFL's accomplishments," Tagliabue said in his state of the NFL address last month. "We also stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us and set the foundation for the NFL's rise to the pre-eminent position in sports entertainment.

"Today, the entire league faces a critical business challenge, not unlike others that we have successfully addressed in the past two decades."

The NFL has had its share of labor strife. Two games into the 1987 season, the players went on strike in an effort to gain free agency and other benefits. It was the second walkout in five years, but the NFL responded by hiring replacement players, missing only one week of the schedule and playing three games. The games were poorly received by fans, and some players crossed the picket line. The strike ended after 24 days without a new contract. It prompted the decertification (or dissolution) of the union, re-establishment of the union and the 1992 agreement that essentially is in place today.

The relationship between Upshaw and the owners is a big reason for the NFL's success. On the eve of a hearing before the U.S. House Government Reform Committee, the NFL, with support from the union, announced plans to triple from two to six the number of random offseason tests for performance-enhancing drugs players can face. "I think there are several reasons why the NFL is so successful, and it starts with the fact that it's a very good game," Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay said. "And the labor peace we have enjoyed with the union under Gene Upshaw has been critical."

Aside from labor peace, there are several other factors responsible for the NFL's unrivaled growth and prosperity.

REVENUE SHARING: In 1963, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded teams to start sharing money they received from the league's television contracts. That ensured the financial stability of small-market teams.

Modell once told Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that Major League Baseball should adopt better revenue sharing.

"You can't gobble up every nickel and every player," Modell said. "You'll wash out the little guy. You won't have any competition."

COMPETITIVE BALANCE: Through the draft and free agency, teams have an opportunity to quickly rise from worst to first. The resulting parity keeps fans in most of the NFL's 32 cities believing their team could go to the Super Bowl until the final weeks of the regular season. Last year, two 8-8 teams made the playoffs.

TELEVISION: Much of the more than $6-billion the NFL earns in annual revenue comes from contracts with four networks and DirecTV. And the league has incorporated instant replay and other technologies to enhance the viewing of the game.

"It's the perfect sport to televise," said John Madden, the former Raiders Super Bowl coach and an analyst for ABC's Monday Night Football. "We have change of possession. And there's a timeout every change of possession, and there's a commercial. That's what pays for everything."

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil believes fans also are attracted to the violent nature of the sport.

"The violence and the contact of the game is a release," he said. "It's a day away from their own problems and whatever they're going through. And they can really get involved in someone else's struggles on the football field."

Cautious optimism continues to grow that the NBA and its players' union can reach an agreement to stave off a lockout in the fall. The league is seeking a reduction in the maximum length of contracts and a minimum age of 20. The current seven-year agreement expires at the end of June.

The NBA went through a seven-month lockout in 1998 and '99 before agreeing to the current deal. The league historically has had trouble finding a compromise. Not since '88 has a new deal been reached before the previous one expired, though games were lost only during the recent lockout.

Meanwhile, the NHL remains without an agreement. Commissioner Gary Bettman won't rule out the use of replacement players, though they are unlikely, and the draft was called off. No such fate is about to cripple the NFL, which had more than 30-million viewers tune into the draft last weekend. In fact, the league is always looking to fill the airwaves with more programing on its NFL Network.

If anything, the NFL has to be careful not to extinguish interest by overexposure.

"That's why I'm a little leery of the Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, flexible schedule," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "I think it's great we've played either Sunday or Monday for 30 years.

"In baseball, you didn't get to see Roberto Clemente every night. But when he was on, you said, "I'm going to see this game.' Now the fact that I can see Derek Jeter every single night if I want to, in some ways, I think it's bad. And I think it would be bad for us to have NFL football on every night or three times a week.

"It's all about creating interest. And I think for the most part, we've done a good job. But at some point, overexposure is not good."