With the current NFL collective bargaining agreement set to expire on March 4, the league's owners and players have less than two weeks to come to a deal, or else find themselves in the midst of the first work stoppage their sport has seen in nearly 25 years.
If recent talks are any indication, things are not looking good.
This wasn't supposed to happen - at least not right now. Back in March 2006, the owners ratified the current collective barganing agreement by a 30-2 vote (the owners of the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals voted against it). By most accounts, the players received the better concessions in the deal, as the CBA granted them approximately 50% of all NFL revenues.
The agreement was originally set to expire in 2013, but the owners, who quickly became disenchanted with the deal, exercised their right in May of 2008 (with a 32-0 vote) to end the agreement two years early.
What would cause the owners to agree to terminate a deal that they had willingly signed a mere 26 months earlier? In a word: money.
In the current collective bargaining agreement, NFL receives the first $1 billion in total revenues, with the remaining monies divided between the league and the players (with the players receiving approximately 60% of that amount).
In their proposal for a new CBA, the owners would like to increase that figure to $2 billion, with the extra money covering league expenses. With current league revenues at $9.3 billion, that would equate to a loss of nearly $600 million for the NFLPA - 12 percent of their current share of league revenue.
Obviously, this is doesn't sit well with the players' association, especially with the owners pushing for an "enhanced" 18-game season without offering the players any significant concessions to that end. Add on the lack of guaranteed contracts, and the fact that the frequency of serious injuries and concussions is at an all-time high, and that's why a lockout almost seems inevitable at this point.
Both sides realize the impact that a potential work stoppage could have, but both have also drawn the proverbial line in the sand. And as is the case with most high-profile negotations, the two parties have made their respective positions available to anyone who chooses to listen.
"Staying with the status quo is not an option," wrote NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in an op-ed column released on February 15. "The world has changed for everyone, including the NFL and our fans. We must get better in everything we do."
Meanwhile, the NFLPA held its One Team Tour this fall, partnering with local labor leaders at events around the country to give the fans their side of the story. They've also embarked on a advertising campaign called "Let Us Play" in which they make it known that they're willing to play, but that the owners are the ones preventing that from happening.
So, from a fan perspective, what happens if there's no agreement by March 4? In the short-term: not much. The annual Scouting Combine and NFL Draft (April 28-30) will still take place as usual.
What comes next is anyone's guess. Since the players would literally be locked out of team facilities, there won't be any post-draft mini-camps or team-organized offseason workouts of any sort.
More importantly, there can't be any free agency period - the collective bargaining agreement sets the parameters on the amount of service time needed before becoming a restricted or unrestricted free agent.
That, added to the fact that no trades involving players can be made until a new CBA is reached, means that player movement will grind to a complete halt.
With no free agency and no trades, the draft itself could be markedly different from what we're typically used to seeing. In many cases, teams use the draft to address positions that they were unable to fill via free agency. However, if there is no CBA (and/or no free agency period) before April 28, teams may have an entirely different strategy come draft day.
On a related note, another one of the owners' priorities in these negotations is the demand for a true rookie wage scale, similar to the system currently in place in the NBA. This is clearly a move to avoid situations where teams are locked in to exorbitant deals with first-round picks who don't play up to the team's expectations.
Conversely, the NFLPA wants a similar setup to what is in place currently, but would like to reduce the maximum number of years on rookie contracts so that players can become free agents sooner.
While the two sides may be able to find common ground on that issue, it may be more difficult to do so in regards to player safety.
With the seemingly sudden rash of injuries in the NFL, there's every reason to believe the NFLPA when they say that current league proposals to extend the season by two extra games are "unacceptable."
According to the NFLPA, 352 players were placed on injured reserve this season, with an average of 9.5 games missed per person. When divided amongst the league's 32 teams, that's an average of exactly 11 players per organization, or more than 20 percent of a team's active roster.
Without the league taking serious steps to address the NFLPA's concerns regarding health/pension benefits and post-career medical coverage (among other issues), the owners' desire for an 18-game season could become a major point of contention in the coming weeks and months.
Beginning today, representatives for both the NFL and the NFLPA are scheduled to meet for the better part of the next week. Since recent discussions haven't been even remotely productive, the two sides agreed to federal mediation in the hopes that a third-party will bring them closer to a new deal.
Both the owners and players realize what's at stake over the next few weeks, and now appear willing to do whatever it takes to get a deal done.
In a recent interview with Pro Football Talk, Arizona Cardinals' kicker (and union representative) Jay Feely stated that it's imperative that owners and players ratify a new agreement as soon as possible.
"We have record revenue, we have record TV ratings, we have record worth of franchises and players have never made more money," said Feely. "It is inherent on both sides to find a way to get a deal done."
"There has been enough rhetoric, litigation and other efforts beyond the negotiating table," wrote Goodell in his op-ed piece. "It is time for serious negotiations."