INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL wrapped up its day-and-a-half spring meeting Wednesday, with an eye toward what lies ahead in the labor battle that has held all league business hostage for nearly three months.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at the close of the meeting, said the lockout, in effect since March 12, already has taken a toll on the league, financially and otherwise, with looming court rulings that could prompt a critical set of negotiations as the season draws closer.
"We had a discussion about it this morning -- it's clearly had an impact on our fans already," Goodell said. "We see that in our various metrics that we have, whether they're (TV) ratings or traffic on NFL.com. We see that. And that is a reflection of the uncertainty and the frustration of our fans, and we all understand that, and that's why we think it needs to get resolved."
Goodell said the lockout has "clearly had an impact" on aspects of team business such as season-ticket and suite sales.
"Fans want certainty," Goodell said. "We can't underestimate that the fans are going through challenges just in the general economy."
But the writing, for now, seems to be on the wall, with a June 3 court date set for the appeal of the lockout-lifting junction to be heard in St. Louis, and a ruling not expected until weeks after that hearing. The league and players also have their third round of court-ordered mediation scheduled for June 7-8 in U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan's chambers in Minneapolis.
Much of the spring meeting was spent updating owners and planning for all that's ahead.
"I can speak for the owners, we had a very productive day (Tuesday)," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, co-chair of the labor committee, said. "Pretty much, the day was spent discussing labor -- there were some playing rule discussions, too -- but I think we know what our options are. And we're in a waiting mode. I think we all need to see what's going to happen in July. And then we'll go from there."
Owners, as well as league officials, repeatedly emphasized that a deal is out there to be done. But they also made it clear how important these talks are -- potentially setting up the financial structure of the league for not years but decades to come.
"It's important that our fans, at least for our perspective, know how much I want to and the Cowboys want to play football," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I wouldn't have spent $1.2 billion within the last 24 to 36 months and not want the Cowboys to be out there playing. So the urgency is there.
"But there is that -- there is that every place, every operating enterprise in the world is redoing their business model at this time. Everyone. It's happening all over the world. And it probably should've happened sooner. Our job is to be a custodian to that and see that this model needs change. We believe it does, and that's the basis of this need to get a new agreement."
NFL general counsel Jeff Pash preached compromise Tuesday night and raised the possibility of having "true-ups" -- which account for the league's financial growth in the players' take of revenue -- in the new agreement/settlement. But Pash and Goodell said the losses incurred now could affect the league's offers to the players going forward.
Jones, meanwhile, maintained an eye on the future, past just the next year or two.
"The main thing is that we should assess where we are and where we're going," Jones said. "We do that. I do that. Our fans expect us to do that. And that's what this is about for us. We need to change the system we're in right now to impact the business model positively. Ultimately, this will grow the pie and make a great opportunity for the players that are here and the players in the future. But more important than anything, it'll be better for the fans."
The league also discussed plans for the 2011 season, and Goodell even kept alive the possibility that rosters could be temporarily expanded to accommodate rookie development adversely affected by the lockout.
"I do believe that the uncertainty is something we'll have to consider as it relates to getting players ready to play," Goodell said. "One, from an injury standpoint, and two, from making the proper evaluations. We have talked about different concepts depending on how long it goes, that we may have to implement."
Owners were presented the full range of plans for opening weekend, from the first game Sept. 8 at Green Bay's Lambeau Field to commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks on the first full Sunday of games. Those dates aren't in jeopardy yet, but the longer the impasse, the more in danger they would become, particularly with the league's marketing partners, sponsors and advertisers who must commit dollars to those events well in advance.
"We're not at an Armageddon date," Eric Grubman, executive vice president of business operations for the NFL, told The Associated Press. "We're not staring that in the face this week."
With the meetings wrapped up, the league is roughly two months from the traditional open of training camp. Several teams already have begun to consider adjusting where they hold training camp. Fifteen teams trained last summer at complexes other than their in-season facilities, and some have deadlines as early as July 1 to decide whether to return to those locales or hold a truncated training camp at home.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said Tuesday that he believes an agreement is needed by early July to have a normal preseason. Others declined to issue such deadlines but said the urgency is there.
"I think there's been a sense of urgency on our part, starting two years ago," Richardson said. "There's always been a sense of urgency. It makes no sense what we're doing now. We aren't even negotiating."
With negotiations on hold for now, some sensed opportunity for such talks would soon arise. And with court rulings likely to come in late June or July, it's possible some critical meetings between the players and league could be ahead for the process to take its course.
"I do believe that you need deadlines to ultimately have parties coming together," Jones said. "There are several reasons for getting it done now, and certainly, we're in a timeframe, over the last few weeks, where it does seem more urgent than it did at this time a year ago.
"The answer is 'yes' (that deadlines affect matters), and that has a lot of principles of labor negotiation involved there, and that is why, in labor, you have strikes and lockouts. You have those things to create a real need, reason more than normal, to get a deal done. And yes, I think we're moving in that direction."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.