How Premier League can learn from NFL lockout
Rich Hook @RHk_v8
“I hope the 50th anniversary of the end of the maximum wage will remind people of an important principle. Footballers, like any profession, should not have to earn only what an employer wants to pay them.” (Gordon Taylor, PFA chairman, January 2011)
In the same month that Gordon Taylor insisted labour negotiations worked fine in football, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres sulked his way to a £50 million transfer to Chelsea. He has since “rewarded” the West London club with one goal.
From the point in 1961 when a proposed PFA strike saw club owners buckle and abolish the maximum wage, footballers have exerted their power in negotiations, with owners willing to risk debts to comply.
This summer has seen Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez and Arsenal’s Cesc Fàbregas trying to secure “dream” moves, while the measures taken by many other players in forcing transfers have revealed where the balance of power lies in the Premier League.
Yet the actions of franchise-owners in America’s National Football League this off-season showed that the spiralling wage-debt situation is not a fait accompli.
The past five months saw full-scale labour negotiations between the NFL and the National Football League Players Association that threatened to derail the 2011/12 season.
On 25 July, a resolution was finally reached as a new ten-year collective bargaining agreement was ratified by the league’s owners and players.
Many aspects of the deal, such as higher salary floors and lifetime health benefits, suggest the players “got their way”. However, the owners still demonstrated a level of resilience rarely seen from their Premier League counterparts.
The trigger was a proposal by the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, to restructure the NFL season (which, since 1978, has seen teams play 16 regular-season and four pre-season games) to an “18-2” format.
ESPN’s Patrick Hruby said this was “a win-win situation for players and owners”. However, a player backlash over increased injury risks, led by Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis, triggered a high-profile argument.
While fans were keen to see extra games, players felt the move was instead intended to benefit the owners financially and instigate a change to the collective bargaining agreement.
The agreement, which the owners had taken steps to renegotiate as far back as 2008, also covered the terms of how revenue raised by the league was split between owners and players.
The players received 57 per cent of the league’s $9 billion annual revenue and the owners wanted a greater share to compensate them for their investment, claiming payments to players were causing them to lose money.
While players maintained their key concerns centred on health and safety and retirement provisions, what most fans saw were two, already very rich, groups arguing about how best to split their billions.
The NFL commentator Peter King said at the time: “The fans are just mad and rightfully so. This is one of the most profitable sports in the history of the world and there’s enough money for everybody.
“But those guys [the players and owners] cannot see or hear that and that is frustrating for the fans.”
In spite of the fans’ desire for a quick resolution, and both sides agreeing to extend collective bargaining agreement negotiations for an extra week, the argument turned into a legal dispute.
For owners of Premier League clubs, this would normally be the point where they make some defiant statements to appease fans (“Ronaldo is not for sale at any price”, perhaps) before ultimately giving in to the demands of the players.
The NFL owners, on the other hand, dug their heels in and ordered a lockout to bar players and coaches from attending training or meetings at their clubs’ facilities.
The lockout ended up being the longest work stoppage in league history and the first to cause August’s pre-season Hall of Fame Game to be cancelled.
The annual curtain-raiser is held in Canton, Ohio, and the week-long festivities around the game inject more than $1 billion into the local area, which will now be lost for this year.
Don Boyer, who runs Legends Sports Pub and Grille in North Canton, said: “Sales over the weekend of the game are often 200 to 300 per cent up on a normal weekend, so the loss was devastating to us.
“The impact of missed games in the season would have been even greater for businesses, so I’m pleased they have finally got this sorted out.”
This is one reason why NFL owners and players were ultimately willing to come to the table to seek a resolution – they have managed to stay more in touch with the “average” fan than those representing the Premier League.
Goodell said the most important part of the agreement was that it “will afford a unique opportunity to deliver to fans an even better, safer and more competitive game in the future”.
Contrast this approach to Mohamed Al Fayed, the Fulham owner, telling “stupid” fans to “go to hell” or the MK Dons boss Pete Winkelman admitting that: “Chairmen can say many mad things to fans but football survives anyway.”
It seems as though English-based owners are willing to turn their back on fans because they believe new ones will continue to emerge.
Yet owners are “bullied” more easily by players. Take William Gallas’ departure from Chelsea, for example.
Chelsea gave Gallas a platform to establish himself as one of the best defenders in the world, and even after he told them that he wanted to leave for a “better” club, they offered him a new deal.
Gallas then went so far as to go on strike and, even more unprofessionally, allegedly threatened to score an own-goal. His “punishment” was not a fine or a suspension, but a lucrative transfer to Arsenal.
Some might argue that Roman Abramovich “stood up” to Gallas, but the Chelsea owner merely rewarded his poor attitude with a transfer, as others including Pierre van Hooijdonk, Dwight Yorke, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Mascherano “achieved” elsewhere.
In an effective negotiation, both sides should emerge as winners, as Minnesota Vikings’ Ben Leber said: “Both parties were rightfully trying to stand their ground.
“In the end, against all the negativity, they took their time and hammered out what is going to be one of the best deals in the history of sports.”
If football club owners had taken a similar attitude in 1961, then perhaps wages would not have rocketed to their current level (Yaya Toure, for example, reportedly earns £225,000 a week at Manchester City).
The Arsenal chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, suggested: “It is worth our while to investigate whether elements of the salary cap system, which they have in the NFL, would benefit football.”
While a salary cap may be unfeasible given the global nature of football and the opportunity for players to earn more in other leagues, a similar system could be implemented.
The new collective bargaining agreement led to veterans including Derrick Mason and Adam Vinatieri being released by their teams before rejoining for lower salaries, and Cam Newton signing for considerably less than previous first-round draft picks.
The key is that players accepted a lower salary cap in exchange for a better share of NFL revenue, and this could be a smart negotiating tool for owners of football clubs.
If owners were willing to work together to set wages based on collective league revenue, then this might lead to a more representative and a more level playing field.
A league-average wage based on revenue (as Uefa’s financial fair play regulations suggest) would prevent teams from stockpiling talent.
Chelsea’s decision to sign Shaun Wright-Phillips for around £23 million in 2005, and prevent Arsenal from being able to do so, could not really happen in the NFL.
That is not to say that NFL teams never offer players inflated contracts – the raft of expensive signings after the end of the lockout shows what happens if they deal on short timescales.
On the other hand, Manchester City signed Sergio Aguero in a deal reportedly totalling £85 million without selling any of their £200 million strikeforce of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, Emmanuel Adebayor and Craig Bellamy.
City’s transfer activity is more remarkable given the introduction of the financial fair play system, which dictates that clubs have three years to “break even” and spend according to how much they earn rather than the wealth of their owner.
The underlying aim of Uefa’s financial fair play regulations seems to be to move towards the model that has made the NFL popular: one based on parity.
The issue again comes back to owners of Premier League clubs, who don’t appear inclined to sacrifice their own position for the benefit of the competition, and the game, as a whole.
NFL owners and players worked together to step back from the brink and agree a revenue deal that works for all involved. Perhaps it’s time those in the Premier League did the same.
As the NFLPA executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said: “If we [owners and players] don’t have a good relationship, it hurts the game of football.”
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s basketball feature “Evolution of a Big Man”