Extra game coming for NFL whether players like it or not

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The Falcons' opponents in 2020

Last fall I heard from some Falcons faithful who hoped the empty seats at Mercedes-Benz Stadium would pressure team owner Arthur Blank to fire coach Dan Quinn. But that was wishful thinking. Television is where the real money is for NFL team owners, and they are ready to squeeze players to get even more of it.

Last week team owners approved a negotiated labor deal with the players’ union that includes the option for 17 regular-season games instead of 16 starting in 2021, and expanded playoffs in 2020. Union representatives were supposed to vote on the proposal the next day, but that didn’t happen. The union’s executive council voted against recommending it to the full membership, with the 17th game as a sticking point.

NFLPA representatives were set to meet with management at the NFL scouting combine Tuesday in Indianapolis. Team owners said that if no deal is reached, they are prepared to move on with the current CBA, which expires after next season. Team owners eventually will get the 17th game they want. It’s inevitable they’ll ask for an 18th game someday and get that, too.

I’d like to be wrong about this. I side with the self-made laborers with specialized skills who take most of the risks over billionaires with wildly profitable private businesses that are subsidized by public money. But the reality is NFL owners almost always come out on top in labor fights.

There’s a lot of money at stake. NFL teams currently receive $6.5 billion annually for media rights. Team owners are betting that networks, cable channels and streaming services will drive up bidding for the rights to show even more games. They are probably right.

Viewership for NFL games has increased for the past two seasons. There’s a new group of exciting young quarterbacks. Add extra inventory with more games, and NFL owners would be in good position to substantially increase their media rights fees. They aren’t going to suddenly start caring about player health and safety when they never have.

The Falcons are among the 31 teams that don’t publicly disclose their financials. The Packers, a publicly owned team, must report their cut. In 2018, NFL teams received $274.3 million per team in national revenue. That’s up from $163.3 million in 2011, the first year of the 53/47 split in some revenues between players and team owners.

That shared revenue stream is why NFL team owners profit regardless of their team's performance. Another reason is public subsidies for stadiums (Blank is projected to get $700 million in tax money for his building). NFL owners can make additional profit through local, non-shared revenue, but the shared TV money creates a floor -- and that's also taxpayer-subsidized because they profit from broadcasting games on public airwaves.

NFL owners need the stability of a new labor deal to make more money with the next media deals. The CBA proposal on the table runs through the 2030 season. At least 21 of 32 union player reps must vote in favor for it to be recommended to membership. Ratification requires a simple majority of the union members who vote.

If the players don’t like the 17th game, and team owners insist on it, then the union could decide to strike. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith recently explained the drawbacks of that strategy.

"(P)eople need to understand that it's really easy to call for a work stoppage; it's really hard to win one," Smith told ESPN during Super Bowl week. "So that's why I started notifying players four years ago about saving their checks, making changes to their debt structure, and the reality is that if we want to hold out and get everything we want, that's probably going to mean a two-year strike."

That’s a very hard sell for players. Their average career length is about three years. Do they really want to go on strike and miss some of the few paychecks they are likely to get?

Owners could stage games with scab players in the event of a strike. The risk would be damage to the NFL's brand. In 1987, attendance at games for three weeks with replacement players plummeted by more than half, and TV ratings dropped 20 percent. That provided some evidence that fans won't necessarily watch just any players wearing the home team's uniform.

But that 1987 strike still ended badly for players. It was the same story for the 1982 strike. Team owners locked players out in the summer 2011 and ultimately won the concession of a lower percentage of revenue going to players compared with the previous CBA.

It’s possible owners might have overreached with one provision of the proposed CBA. It calls for paying players currently under contract for a 17th game, but the amount is capped at $250,000. That means players making at least $4.3 million in base salary would be playing an extra game at a reduced salary.

Players’ share of league revenue would increase to 48.5 percent with 17 games, but the highest-paid players still would be taking a pay cut for the extra game. NFL owners long have kept players divided on labor issues by providing stars relative security with substantial contract guarantees. The smaller 17th paycheck is an issue on which stars might balk.

In the end, that’s unlikely to matter much. NFL team owners may give a little on that or other issues, but a 17th game is inevitable whether the league’s players like it or not.