Once again, time out for the fans

Once again, time out for the fans

Alvin P. Sanoff

The NFL players’ strike and a ruling that baseball owners

have been unfair colluding to keep salaries down have focused

attention on the divisive question of free agency

Television sets were stilled. Husbands talked to their wives. Families went on outings. The players of the National Football League were on strike, and it was no ordinary job action. In the autumn ritual of millions of gridiron gonzos, this was sacrilege; a cause of acute desperation among the faithful. And to make things worse, the prognosis for healing was anything but certain. Says Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, recalling the 57-day strike of 1982: “This could be a long one.”

At the center of the conflict between owners and players is an issue that has roiled the waters in virtually all of professional team sports-free agency. In the National Basketball Association, the dispute over the rights of players to market their services freely is hamstringing contract negotiations. In major-league baseball, it is a continuing cause of controversy. And in the fractious football dispute, it is at the very heart of things. In the view of the players who walked off the field in anger last week, free agency represents the opportunity to leave one club and take a job with another. The benefits of moving usually include either a lot more money or a lot more playing time. The players reason that if club owners can relocate franchises athletes should have the same freedom of movement. “Players just want opportunities other workers have,” says Kent Hill of the Houston Oilers. “The way it is now, once a team has you, they have you.”

To owners, however, free agency raises the specter of frenzied bidding wars for unattached players; that would eat up profits. Without meaningful free agency, proprietors in the National Football League, virtually all of whom run their clubs in the black, have managed to keep average salary growth at a relatively modest 6 percent over the past two years. That’s a number the owners can easily live with. As a percentage of total franchise revenues, player costs dropped from 59 percent in 1985 to 55 percent last year. The owners, obviously, would like to maintain that trend.

In smaller cities with smaller pocketbooks, owners say free agency would force them out of competition for topnotch players. But that’s debatable. A decade ago, baseball clubs made the same arguments, but since the advent of free agency, the game has been more competitive than ever.

A baseball omen for the NFL

It is true that with increased competition came higher costs for the owners. At the peak of the free-agent frenzy, baseball salaries climbed 30 percent a year, skyrocketing from an average of $113,500 in 1979 to $329,400 in 1984. As the numbers went up, more and more clubs began to ooze red ink, and in 1985 owners stopped their bidding. The result: This year, for the first time in anyone’s memory, the average salary dropped by about 3 percent to an estimated $400,000. But there were problems with the owners’ strategy. On September 21 (in what some pro-football-franchise owners saw as an omen, coming as it did on the eve of the NFL strike) an arbitrator ruled that by refusing to bid for players, baseball owners had engaged in collusion. How that ruling will change baseball’s free-agent market is still unclear. But the baseball decision, says Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm, reinforced the position of NFL owners to resist union demands for liberalized free agency.

If the NFL owners’ competitiveness arguments seem specious by the standards of recent baseball history, the evidence of the soaring costs associated with free agency nonetheless has given them reason for pause. Instead of agreeing to the National Football League Players Association demands that athletes gain unfettered free agency after four years in the NFL, the owners have offered a modest change in the system. Currently, a club signing a free agent has to give his original team top draft choices; the owners propose that this compensation be reduced. The owners’ other proposals include a wage scale for first and second-year players that the NFLPA estimates will save teams $52 million a year-more than 10 percent of player costs.

Winning at the cash register

Because of the unusual financial arrangements of the professional football organization, league owners may have less incentive than proprietors in other sports to engage in bidding wars for better players. The bulk of the owners’ revenue-57 percent last season-comes from network-TV contracts. This money is shared equally among the league’s 28 teams, which also divide gate receipts, with 60 percent going to the home team and 40 percent to the visitors. Under the system, even a club that loses on the field can win at the cash register, especially if it gets substantial revenue from luxury boxes and concessions, which don’t have to be shared. A case in point is the Indianapolis Colts, considered the most profitable team in the league. Its record last year: A weak 3-13.

The merits of the competing arguments aside, it’s clear that neither players nor owners can afford a long strike. Yet when both sides walked away from the bargaining table Friday with no date set to resume talks, prospects for such a strike seemed dramatically increased. Even if they field teams of nonstrikers next Sunday, as they plan to do, the owners stand to lose some of the revenue they take in every week from TV, tickets and ancillary sources. For one thing, it’s unclear whether the networks will pay the full price-about $4 million per team per month-for games played by NFL rejects that are expected to draw far less advertiser and fan interest. Richard Kostyra, executive vice president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, estimates that the games for what has been dubbed “scab ball” will attract “no more than half the audiences of regular NFL games.”

Carrying the heavy end

Among players, the most well known will suffer the brunt of the strike’s financial burden. Quarterbacks such as Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and John Elway of the Denver Broncos will forfeit more than $60,000 a week in pay. For now, the cause of free agency and better pension and severance pay benefits is keeping them on the sidelines. But club owners hope that a cash-flow crunch and the sight of strikebreakers playing their positions will lure many athletes back. “By being up and operating,” says Mike Brown, assistant general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals, “we hope to serve as a magnet that attracts some veteran players and hope that more will come in every week.” In the event of a prolonged strike, even staunch union supporters worry about the erosion of solidarity. “I am not sure how long some individuals can stay out,” says veteran linebacker Otis Wilson of the Chicago Bears. “It depends on their financial status.”

For the average fan, all the griping over money is beside the point. Chicago security guard Calvin Banks, for one, is trying to adjust to the unaccustomed rhythm of his weekends now. Says Banks: “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with my Sundays.”

by Alvin P. Sanoff with the domestic bureaus

COPYRIGHT 1987 All rights reserved.

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