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The real NFL issue

| Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose owners and players are bickering over a new labor contract, talks about long-term financial goals as if the players ought to give a damn, which they shouldn't.

If ever there was a professional sports league in which, financially speaking, me, me, me is an acceptable game plan, it's the NFL, where the smartest players get theirs and get out.

An NFL player's career lasts, on average, about three years, the predictable result of huge bodies repeatedly crashing into one another. Every player steps onto the field knowing the next play could be his last. Some are lucky. Former New England Patriots and New York Jets running back Curtis Martin, for instance, lives without pills or pain after 11 seasons in the NFL.

"As a player, it's hard to have a long-term vision," says Martin, the Pitt and Taylor Allderdice High School graduate. "Owners obviously want to make more money and I want to believe players eventually will make more money."

Players ought to eradicate the words "eventually" and "future" from their vocabularies during these negotiations. Absent a new contract by March 3, when the existing collective bargaining agreement expires, it's possible the owners will impose a lockout that in the worst case might wipe out the 2011 season.

Ah, the owners. They're fighting, too. Only their battles take place in private. Goodell doesn't want to discuss his bickering bosses, all 32 of whom just can't seem to find common ground on what's fair to share. (An NFL labor lawyer insists the owners are unified.)

The late Wellington Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, espoused a philosophy of "we," which helped the NFL to become the dominant U.S. sports league.

He would hate this fight.

Oh, to be a football on the wall when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and, say, Buffalo's Ralph Wilson debate the league's revenue-sharing system. Share and fair.

What's important to note here is that NFL teams share only national revenue. Things like TV contracts. Teams keep their local revenue, concessions sales, sponsorship and luxury suites, which is why today's Super Bowl between small-market Pittsburgh and Green Bay is a symbolically perfect matchup for the league's economics.

Here are the Steelers and Packers, iconic brands, neither of which could have remained competitive throughout the decades without revenue sharing. And they will vie for the championship inside the billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium that produces so much unshared revenue that Jones' team will be catapulted into a financial league alongside the likes of the Jets and Giants, which share a new $1.5 billion facility.

Only you won't hear much about that fight, which, if history is any guide, could be fiercer than anything that occurs between owners and players.

Lucky for those who like to peek behind the curtain, this Super Bowl includes the Packers, or Green Bay Packers Inc., which since 1923 has been the NFL's sole publicly owned corporation and must disclose its financial results.

Mark Murphy, a former player and union official who now is chief executive of the franchise, prior to the season said revenue grew about $10 million, to $258 million, in the fiscal year ended March 31, mostly because money shared among the league's clubs increased to $157 million from $147 million. Local revenue -- and here's the important part -- remained little changed at about $100 million since peaking in 2007.

Only Jones, whose Cowboys haven't reached the Super Bowl since 1996, doesn't want to share more of his loot. Few, if any, of the big-revenue teams do.

"We've always had a strong revenue-sharing system," says Steelers President Art Rooney II, acknowledging leaguewide concern about a possible imbalance taking shape. "We need to keep that."

What you won't hear out of Dallas is much talk about the owners and their divide. You'll hear plenty about a system that the owners say pays the players too much and leaves management with little incentive to create new revenue streams. Players are being asked to consider the long-term health of a league that views their long-term health as a bargaining chip.

What Goodell isn't talking about is the oodles of revenue generated by Cowboys Stadium and how Jones will fight like heck to keep every penny of it -- even at the expense of Mara's long-standing principle.

So, enjoy the Steelers and Packers on the big stage. They might not be back for a while. Not if Jones gets his way.

Forget about sharing a piece of the pie. Let's talk about cake. About the big-revenue owners who not only have it but want to devour it even at the expense of competition.

Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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