It would appear that all is well in the National Football League. The league is staging its draft this weekend in a festive
atmosphere, the television contracts are done, and the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which assures labor peace
through 2013, is in place.
But look under the NFL rock, and you'll see the last week has brought some major problems. In New York, Senator Schumer
has decided to keep a close eye on the NFL owners' revenue sharing plan and how the new CBA impacts New York's only
NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. Two western New York congressmen, Brian Higgins and Thomas Reynolds, are also monitoring
how the owners share revenue.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who was one of two owners to vote against the new labor agreement, is concerned that his team
won't be able to afford to sign players over the life of the contract because the salary cap may be too high for his small market
team. As of now, the NFL salary cap is about $105 million annually, but Wilson is afraid that over the course of a contract,
that number will rise more sharply than the Bills' ability to raise revenue, meaning the Bills' future in Buffalo is shaky at best.
It is unclear what exactly Congressman Higgins, who represents the Buffalo area, can do, but the representative is considering
holding House hearings on the new CBA. Congress is not going to undo the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which allowed
the then-14 NFL teams to pool their resources and sell their TV package as one instead of 14 separate entities; nor is
Congress going to undo the 1966 American Football League-National Football League merger.
Last Thursday, Mr. Schumer met with NFL head man Paul Tagliabue and put pressure on the outgoing commissioner to
appoint Wilson to the revenue sharing committee so that at least one small market owner would have a voice on how the
league divides revenue. Tagliabue then issued a statement that the new CBA would be good for small market teams in Buffalo,
Green Bay, Jacksonville, and Kansas City.
Congress may not be able to do much except exert some pressure on NFL owners to make sure they take care of the small
market teams, much in the same way Congress put the hammer to Major League Baseball owners and its players association
last year to come up with a new banned substances policy.
Meanwhile, out West, the San Diego City Council could vote this week to allow Chargers owner Alex Spanos to talk to other
cities about relocating his franchise. It seems San Diego can't afford to build a new football facility for its team.
The Chargers' ownership had hoped to put together a deal with San Diego officials to pay for a stadium in exchange for land
and tax breaks. Now, Mayor Jerry Sanders is hoping the Chargers can negotiate with smaller cities in the San Diego vicinity
including Oceanside, Chula Vista, and National City and remain in the area.
If Spanos does decide to bolt, he will have to pay a $60 million penalty, something NFL owners don't like to do: pay their way
out of a contract. It sets a bad lease precedent.
But Sanders's move may allow both Los Angeles and Anaheim to negotiate with Spanos. The NFL wants to return to the L.A.
market by 2009, which would dovetail with the end of Spanos's contract in San Diego. But another problem arises if Spanos
pursues Los Angeles: Will he want to put money up for the renovation of the Los Angeles Coliseum? And if he does, would he
be happy to share the facility not only with USC, but another NFL team?
The NFL has quietly asked the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission to raise the number of events in the Coliseum from 25 to
35 annually. Apparently, the NFL thinks it can find two compatible owners to share the venue, much like the Giants'
Mara-Tisch families and the Jets' Woody Johnson, who are building a new Meadowlands facility together.
The NFL actually needs two teams in Los Angeles for television purposes, but before it can even think about TV, the league
has some problems. Unlike the Meadowlands, there is no room at the Coliseum for off-stadium site development, a major
consideration for any new pro stadium. Secondly, the L.A. Coliseum Commission may have to think long and hard about
allowing the NFL and one or two of its owners to control the naming rights of the historic building. There would be a lot of
interest in the naming rights to a Los Angeles stadium, unlike in New Orleans, where neither Saints owner Tom Benson nor the
state were able to sell the naming rights to the Louisiana Superdome.
This isn't the first time that the NFL has thought about putting two teams in one Los Angeles area venue. After the Rams left
Anaheim for St. Louis in 1994, Raiders owner Al Davis negotiated to build a stadium in the Hollywood Park Racetrack
parking lot. The NFL got involved with financing and suggested that Davis could hold five Super Bowls in a 10-year period in
the new stadium to help defer the cost. The five Super Bowls became three, then two, then one; then, the Raiders were told
they would have to accept a second team in the new facility and share revenues, even though the Raiders would be paying for
a portion of the facility. By spring 1995, Davis had rejected the offer and moved his franchise back to Oakland.
The NFL didn't want to return to the Coliseum in the 1990s, but is apparently stuck with it if the league wants to return to L.A.
Of course, Spanos may decide Anaheim is a good alternative. He has contributed heavily to Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle's
political campaigns, and Anaheim seems willing to put up some money for the stadium.
It's possible the NFL would take Anaheim as the only Los Angeles-area team. But that leads to yet another problem: satisfying
the league's biggest revenue producing partners, the TV networks. If Spanos moves the Chargers to the Los Angeles area,
CBS would get a "home" team in what is now a neutral market for carriers of AFC games. That would make CBS executives
happy, but it would not please FOX, which airs NFC games. FOX would want a second team in L.A. so it, too, would have a
"home" team to show weekly.
If all of this isn't enough, the NFL has hired an executive recruitment firm to help identify candidates to become the next NFL
Commissioner. Whoever gets the job better get acquainted with Congress, TV executives, and California politicians in a hurry.
The peace and tranquility of the new CBA and TV deals have evaporated.