National Football League players narrowly voted to approve a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the league, creating labor peace through at least 2030 and paving the way for a series of major changes within the sport.
The NFL Players Association’s full membership passed the deal by a rather close 1,019-to-959 vote, both ending and encapsulating weeks of both public and private debate among players over the merits of the deal. Approval required a simple majority vote. Perhaps shockingly, roughly 500 union members eligible to vote by the March 14 deadline did not do so.
The deal, initially approved by owners last month, contains a series of dramatic shifts to traditional league practice including the expansion of every team’s schedule to include a 17th game, expansion of the postseason from 12 total teams to 14, changes to drug and discipline policies, and an increase of the players’ share of overall revenue from 47 per cent to 48 per cent, and 48.5 per cent for any season that includes a 17-game regular season.
The 17-game season will take effect as soon as the 2021 season, though the specifics of how that will actually work have yet to be finalized. Many players had opposed the schedule expansion out of health and safety concerns, but that viewpoint ultimately did not win out in the full membership vote.
“Our members have spoken and the CBA has been ratified,” said Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, newly elected as NFLPA president. “We pick up a greater share of revenues, make significant gains to minimum salaries and increase our post-career benefits. For players past, this deal reaches back in an unprecedented way to increase pensions, benefits, and make resources available to them.
“We understand that not all deals are perfect, and we don’t take the gains we wanted, but couldn’t get, lightly. We must now unite and move forward as a union. The interest and passion on the issues that our members have voiced in the past several weeks needs to continue,” Tretter said.
The league, which was eager to get a deal done as soon as possible, predictably cheered the news of the positive vote.
“We are pleased that the players voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The new deal arrives just three days before the scheduled March 18 start of the new league deal, and provides much-needed clarity for the overall economic system and how player movement will be governed.
The deal technically covers the 2021-30 seasons, but some changes will begin to take effect this coming season, in essence then covering a total of 11 seasons.
Other provisions in the agreement include a rise in the league’s minimum salary from the current $510,000 to $610,000 this coming year, and $1.065m by 2020; a rise in low-end salaries for players with more than one year of experience; an increase in game-day active rosters from 46 to 48 players; a greater spread over the year in how players are paid; several changes to the drug policy that include the elimination of suspensions for positive marijuana tests; pension boosts for both current and former players; and decreases in padded practices during training camp, among many other provisions.
The deal notably also gives players a share of legal gambling revenue deriving from NFL stadiums, regardless of whether bets are made on league games or not, in turn allowing players to benefit from revenue beyond the specific scope of football-related activity.
“Everybody around this was uncertain about how it was going to turn out,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant who frequently works with the NFL. “People were making plans in both directions, and anybody who says they knew for certain how this was going to break is lying.
“But it’s done. It’s resolved. And there’s definitely something to having this done and having that certainty when so much else is uncertain right now,” Ganis said.
With the pay increases, particularly at the lower end of the salary scale where the majority of NFL players reside, the NFL estimates that as much as an additional $100m will go to players this coming season.
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey was among the players vocally unhappy about about the final member turnout for voting.
“Around 500 players didn’t even vote on the new CBA …,” he tweeted. “It’s good and bad to this deal. I could see why anyone would vote either way. I just think it’s amazing guys don’t even care.”
With the labor deal now in place, the NFL can now get to work on selling its next cycle of US media rights, by far the league’s largest individual revenue source. With the ongoing coronavirus outbreak shutting down all US and college sports as we know it, and the national economy reeling from a large-scale stock market retreat, the NFL faces a much more uncertain landscape for that task. It’s expected that serious efforts toward new rights deals will not commence until the virus situation eases.
Amid that unease, the NFL still enjoys the strong position of its games representing the most-watched programming on US television, regardless of genre. And the forthcoming increases in both regular season and playoff game inventory also gives the league with additional assets to offer TV networks.
“You look at what’s happening now with the market capitalization with some of the folks who either have rights now or want rights, and you wonder if they’re going to be comfortable making the same kind of commitments as they would two months ago,” Ganis said. “That opens the situation up for non-traditional players. But we were always going to get non-traditional players in the next cycle.”
Despite the successful player vote on the CBA, the NFLPA still faces a formal complaint before the National Labor Relations Board from offensive lineman Russell Okung. The union’s executive committee, of which Okung was formerly part, rejected the labor deal on a 6-5 vote, and Okung in part argues that vote means the deal should have never gone before the full union membership.