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Expanding NFL season a hot issue

Expanding NFL season a hot issue

By Kevin Acee (Contact) Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. March 26, 2009

DANA POINT – Expansion of the NFL regular season by one or two games, something that didn't even draw a casual straw poll among owners here this week, dominated the talk coming out of the NFL's annual meetings.

It has to do with the ongoing health of the nation's richest sports league and is intertwined with dwindling revenue in a devastated economy and looming labor talks with the players union.

“If we're going to keep labor peace, we've got to grow and expand,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said.

Teams officially started discussing the issue at the meetings that concluded yesterday. The league's finance and broadcast committees have only recently begun exploring the potential ramifications of such a move. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL spoke with one of its television partners this week about the idea of a longer regular season. Head coaches were reticent to even publicly address the proposal because they didn't know enough about it.

“It's come upon the head coaches really quickly,” Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said.

Goodell indicated there would “probably” be some sort of vote when the owners next meet in May.

The league will consider as part of a possible expansion of the season how active roster size, the length of training camp and timing of offseason programs and the draft might have to change. There is also the issue of the time needed before each season to develop young players, evaluate talent and get players game ready.

Goodell and owners were sure to say that no consensus has been reached on whether to expand the season, and Goodell said he had not reached a conclusion on a preference. But the commissioner acknowledged numerous times yesterday that preseason games comprise an inferior product.

“What we're trying to do is . . . improve the quality of what we're doing,” Goodell said. “There is a strongly held view (among owners) and with our fans that they don't believe preseason games are up to our standards. By swapping preseason games for regular-season games, it's a very positive change for our fans.”

Besides votes on rules changes, the other issues that permeated the three-day session at a resort were the upcoming labor talks with the NFL Players Association on the collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2010 season and the effect of a sour economy.

“We had a very productive meeting,” Goodell said. “We spent a lot of time talking about our preparations and our priorities in the collective bargaining discussions.”

Owners previously voted to opt out of the current CBA two years early, displeased primarily that 60 percent of the league's revenues are guaranteed to players.

“There is tremendous unity in making sure every owner understands the faults with the current CBA, why the system isn't working for us,” Goodell said. “They all realize that. There is also tremendous unity about getting a deal. That's what we're in this for. We want to continue to grow this game and do it on an economic basis that is sound for the players, where they can benefit, and for the NFL clubs.”

Looming over the talks is the shortage of sponsorship, ticket and other revenues because of the recession.

“It's a scary thing,” Goodell said Monday. “There's a lot of uncertainty out there for everybody. And we're no different from that; we're not immune to that.”

Goodell instructed owners to let him be the voice of the league regarding labor talks.

While NFL teams do not make their financial dealings known, a point of contention with the NFLPA, it does not appear that teams are losing money. They're just not making as much money as they were a short time ago.

A report by the NFLPA, released at the Super Bowl, estimated that the average NFL club turned a $24 million profit in 2008. Goodell called that report “fiction” and said the profit estimates were “completely inaccurate.”

The Green Bay Packers, the NFL's only publicly traded team, reported profits of $22 million in 2007.

In September, Forbes said in its annual estimation of team values that the average operating income (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) for NFL teams was $24.7 million. The magazine singled out the Detroit Lions as the sole franchise to lose money. It placed the Chargers' operating income at $19 million, 23rd out of 32 teams.

However, owners have spoken about the economy affecting their operations and the rising debt many of them have from building stadiums. The league recently laid off 15 percent of its employees, and some teams have laid off employees. At least one team forced its employees to take a two-week furlough.

Goodell told owners this week they need to recognize that their way of doing business might have to change.

“I think he's right,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said. “We've got the strongest brand going, but we've got to protect it.”

Kevin Acee: (619) 293-1857; [email protected]
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