In the three months since the federal mediation between the NFL and players broke off, it's been one court date after another, one deadline gone by with the next, and, as a result, a solution has proven elusive.
Skepticism has followed for much of the time being, with each party hesitant to move and wary of the others' intentions and the long-range impact of major decisions in these negotiations.
It's been a relatively long wait, to be sure.
But the time has come, now, for a deal to be done.
The league and players met for a clandestine three-day summit in suburban Chicago last week, they are meeting now in Long Island, and the talks are expected to continue beyond this week's discussions, as the sides look to resolve the differences that led to the union's decertification and the subsequent lockout.
According to sources on each side of the talks, the NFL and players have come to an understanding that the time to bargain seriously is now. And as much as the ongoing litigation has set the calendar thus far, the calendar itself -- and the looming mid-summer start of training camps -- is starting to overtake the litigation as a motivator to move the talks along.
One league source estimated that it would take 4-6 weeks to go from serious negotiations to the drafting process, and a trade association source said the feeling is there is a 30-day window that's just now opening to get a deal done.
To understand how we got here is to understand the clashing points of view of the two parties. The owners are looking for a deal that will work for not just the next few years, but the next couple decades. The players are looking to set a tone that shows the owners that, from a business standpoint, they're not going to be pushed around in the future, particularly since perception holds that's what has happened in the past.
What this hasn't been is the melodrama some have seen it to be between the league and players. It's a business negotiation that each side hopes will reverberate for years to come. And those things take time. There is, of course, some roughhousing that's standard to these things.
To this point, the price each side has paid, in the larger scope, is relatively small. Players and coaches lose their offseason programs, while owners might have hit some small bumps in the road with sponsors and corporate partners. Both sides have taken a public relations hit with the fans.
So why is the urgency ratcheting up? Easy. The price to be paid is about to rise. Significantly.
League sources indicate that the cancellation of the preseason would cost the NFL approximately $1 billion, while a lack of resolution by August 1 would come at a price of $350 million. While those numbers are inexact, there's no question that the loss of revenue -- which will begin once the preseason games come off the schedule -- will make negotiations exponentially more difficult. The pie will shrink, resulting in less money to go around in a situation that, for both sides, is about making the finances right.
"That's by necessity," said one league source. "They get a percentage of the revenues, so if the revenues shrink, their share is less. It's automatic."
For a normal preseason to happen, most estimate an agreement must be reached by about July 15.
On the flip side, it's important for the players to have the growth of the game accounted for. While revenues are currently in the $9-10 billion range, the players association is working on the assumption that number could grow to about $11 billion in 2011, and they want to ensure its constituency is in line to get its share of that potential bump.
What the players are unwilling to do, though, is be pressured by the potential of lost revenue. As one NFLPA source said, "We are not in a rush to do a bad deal."
Both sides acknowledge there is a deal out there that will satisfy each side. And with the calendar providing one reason to do a deal now, last week, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals provided another. The three-judge panel -- hearing the NFL's appeal of a lockout-lifting injunction issued by the Minnesota district court -- telegraphed a potential ruling that would provide each side with leverage.
Most took this from the hearing: The 8th Circuit is likely to go with the logic in its stay ruling, giving the league the right to continue the lockout, though there were indications the judges wouldn't simply permit it go on indefinitely. And the panel also seemed content to allow the antitrust litigation to go forward, which would give the players a leverage point of their own, with the owners operating under damages liability.
The bottom line is that, for now, the playing field has been leveled, and all a ruling could possibly do at this point is screw that up, which is another reason why the window is open.
"You control your own destiny, and you always want that, you never want to put your business in someone else's hands," said an NFLPA source. Another players association source indicated that the owners were the ones who asked for last week's talks in Chicago, a positive sign because it indicates both sides are feeling the heat.
Just as important is that, in these talks, the sides have found a proper forum. A league source said, "We are not going to assert that they're in collective bargaining," an all-important piece for the players to maintain their negotiating position and a sign that what was said outside the courtroom in St. Louis was nothing more than legal rhetoric.
The good news for fans? The sides are working hard and earnestly now, with time to spare for all elements of the season to be saved. Another league source said on Tuesday night that the current talks are serious in format, timing and the makeup of the groups there.
Indeed, a players association source said a major stumbling block has not been having owners who players feel can carry a decision in the room, together. To that end, last week, Jerry Jones, Jerry Richardson, Robert Kraft, Art Rooney and John Mara were in the league's party. All five are on the labor committee. Richardson chairs it. Jones and Kraft are the most influential of the NFL's new breed of owners. And Rooney and Mara are part of two of the most invested and tenured families in the league's long history.
Additionally, a league source pointed out on Tuesday that Commissioner Roger Goodell said last Friday that "both sides are committed," whereas in the past, he's only said that the parties need to be committed to reaching an agreement.
"Both sides feel the pressure now," said another league source. "There's risk on both sides legally here. Neither side is completely comfortable with its legal position. So it's imperative to work now before one side or the other potentially gets the upper hand."
So at the very least, the stage is now set. What happens in the coming weeks should shape what form the 2011 season will take.