Sometimes, a fair outcome of a negotiation is described as one where neither side is totally happy. Another way to look at it is whether each side got what it really wanted.
From the initial general analysis of the extension of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement that was ratified by a vote of the players last weekend, the new deal falls into the second category.
There are a lot of elements within this new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but when it comes to the major points, it's fair to point to these: the owners wanted a 17-game regular season and an expansion of the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams; and the NFLPA wanted more money, and it wanted that money to be directed to the constituency it referred to as its "core players."
"That was actually what the union told us was their main objective from the beginning," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "When we started the negotiations, they made it clear that what they wanted to accomplish if we were going to extend the thing was to – and they described them as the core players – they wanted to take care of the core players. In terms of a general objective and goal, we kind of agreed with that. It was a good direction to go. So that was really at their initiative, but we were supportive of the direction."
Some of the details involved in taking care of the core players have to do with immediate pay increases for the estimated 60 percent of them working under minimum-salary contracts. The new CBA calls for an immediate pay raise of close to 20 percent, sometimes more. A player with less than one year of NFL experience would have earned $510,000 in 2020 under the old deal as an example, and now will earn $610,000 under the new deal. Plus, the minimum salary for players with less than one year of experience rises incrementally throughout the length of the new CBA until it reaches $1.065 million in 2030.
Minimum salaries for players in other experience brackets also will rise. For example, players with one year of NFL experience who were set to earn $585,000 under the old contract now will make $675,000 under the new one, and that number gets to $1.185 million by 2030. And with the NFLPA saying that 60 percent of all players operate under minimum-salary deals, it would have made sense to expect there to be broad approval for a proposal copntaining such tangible financial gains. Yet, the final vote was 1,019 in favor and 959 opposed.
Rooney said the closeness of the vote didn't surprise him in the least. "The naysayers got so much air-time, so to speak, on social media. I thought that might have an impact on some of the younger players, and apparently it did. But that's why I'm glad it was passed, and now we all have to get back together and work to continue to grow the game."
The game is expected to grow by virtue of the 17-game regular season and the expansion of the playoffs, because that should allow the league to negotiate more lucrative contracts with broadcast partners, streaming services, etc. Said Rooney, "It was a long and complicated process, and a lot of issues were addressed over the course of almost a year's worth of negotiations, but certainly the 17-game season was a big piece of the puzzle from the management side of it."
There was a natural symmetry to having 32 teams divided into two 16-team conferences playing a 16-game regular season, and so adding an additional game to the scheduling puzzle is going to take some thought and work. Which teams get the extra home game? Or will the extra game be played at neutral sites, maybe some of those in countries outside the United States?
"First of all, when you look at the whole season, we're going from 16-and-4 to 17-and-3 in terms of how many games will be played over the course of an NFL season, so from that standpoint it's not a dramatic change," said Rooney about the changeover from the current 16 regular season game plus four preseason game format to the reduction of the preseason to three games when the regular season expands to 17 games.
"It's a significant change for the regular season, but I think that the effort will be made to make sure teams have pretty much the same number of home games per year as they have had in the past. That's important for everybody's continuity and lease situations, and that kind of stuff. I've seen speculation that all of the 17th games will be played internationally. I don't think there is any notion that something like that would come true, but it does allow the league to expand international scheduling when and where it would make sense."
In the days since the ratification vote was announced, the NFL decided not to postpone the ringing in of its new league year at 4 p.m. on March 18, and that decision opened up the legal tampering period that precedes free agency, which has resulted in many agreements on contracts that will pay players big, big bucks. In a world reeling from the impact of COVID-19, that's just about the only sports news there is.
"It's a difficult time in our country, a difficult time in the world," said Rooney. "One of the things that was a factor in (the decision to move forward with the start of the league year) is that there really is no time frame for when we're going to get through this. So even if we postpone things for a week or two, there really is no guarantee we would be in a better situation than we're in now. That was the basic thinking on it."
Beyond the opening of free agency, though, few things are clear. The NFL Draft will be staged on its original dates – April 23-25 – but in what form is still to be determined. Will there be OTAs? And what about training camps?
"It's too early to say that," said Rooney about whether training camps are in danger. "Hopefully, God willing, we'll be able to open training camps on time, but we just don't know that at this point. We've been told the draft is going to go on as scheduled on the dates it has been scheduled. We'll have to be prepared for that, and we're preparing for it. Who knows if that will change, but for now we have to prepare for it to take place on the scheduled dates."
RESERVE/RETIRED LIST FOR RYAN
In a bit of Steelers specific news, the team announced earlier today that Ryan Shazier was placed on the reserve/retired list. The Steelers President took a moment to explain the implications of that.
"No. 1, Ryan continues to be a remarkable person and just an inspiration for the whole organization, and really for the whole community, in terms of his perseverance, overcoming what he overcame," said Rooney. "Ryan is going to make some decisions about his future at this point. I don't want to speak for him, but I think from our side of it we would be happy to have him continue to be a part of the Steelers organization in some capacity. We would love to be able to do that. Ryan is at the point where he's making those kinds of decisions about his future. He has been told by a number of people in the organization (about us wanting him to continue to be a part of us), including me."