NFL lockout, one year later: Reflections on the labor peace

BALTIMORE -- Last summer, about an hour's drive from here, I spent July 25 camped out in front of NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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I remember the heat index being about 125 (that's not an exaggeration). I remember my hair being shoulder length (that is an exaggeration), because I'd been on the road for six weeks covering the story. I remember getting very little sleep the night before. And I remember the light at the end of the tunnel finally being bright enough to show real, tangible signs of training camp on the horizon. A new collective bargaining agreement was imminent.

We all got football back that day, with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, still mourning the loss of his wife Myra, and NFLPA executive committee member Jeff Saturday providing the lasting image to end the longest work stoppage in league history. Twelve months later, much is forgotten about how we got there.

But having covered the lockout day-to-day for the better part of five months, I learned plenty about the league. So now, with a year of perspective and residual fallout to go on, the anniversary of the end of the longest work stoppage in NFL history seems like a good time to share some of that stuff:

Money trumps sport: The NFL is a business first and a game second. That can be hard for fans to hear. The sport is an escape for most of you who are reading this.

On one side of the table, you have a group made up chiefly of very successful businessmen who can afford to run one of the 32 most valuable sports franchises in the world. On the other, you have athletes who fall into a top percentage-of-a-percentage-point of those who ever buckled a chinstrap. In the middle, you've got a lot of money.

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And in the end, everything is driven by dollars, not football. Offseason programs, organized team activities and minicamp dates were blown through without so much as a blink. Yet, every time money was on the line, movement happened. That's why the court battle was necessary. That's why the preseason games were preserved. That's why July 25 was when the settlement occurred.

Someone pretty smart told me early in the process to follow the money. Turned out, that was a pretty good bit of advice.

Coaches were left in the cold: Work conditions were one area where negotiations were less difficult between owners and players, because the one group that might have adamantly demanded more arduous hours didn't have a seat at the table.

I had a handful of coaches and coordinators tell me they didn't like the new limits on practice. In the end, 33 percent of each team's offseason work was lopped off, as 15-week programs were shortened to 10 weeks. Stricter rules were instituted regarding contact. More was done to mitigate physical wear-and-tear on veteran players. More structure has actually resulted within many offseason programs, because: a) time's been squeezed, and b) you have to be further along going into training camp with the elimination of two-a-days.

Players were cool with all that, of course. And the savings in having facilities less active for a few weeks each spring wasn't going to hurt the owners. That leaves the football operations folks, competitive as can be and constantly looking for ways to get better, scrambling to adjust in the aftermath.

It'll be a few years until we get real answers: One big win for the players came in the structure of the revenue split, though there has been some misplaced grousing over flat salary cap projections over the next couple seasons. But there really isn't reason for players to panic. The way the deal was built, with the NFLPA emphasizing television money, it always was going to cost players in the short term, until the end of the existing TV deal.

The players got 55 percent of league media, which includes TV money, while they took in a 45 percent split on NFL Ventures and a 40 percent split on local revenue. It'll be 2015 -- not 2014, as was widely believed -- before the new television money begins to be calculated into the cap, since '14 is the first year of a nine-year extension with the networks. The owners built the TV deal with payouts rising gradually over the course of its life. One big motivating factor was to avoid a spike in player spending, which could wind up being bad for everyone and end up costing players after 2015 (with teams foolishly throwing money around to get over the floor) and 2019 and '20 (with lower caps).

That's why it's best to wait a few years to get a full picture of who won and who lost.

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Owners have already started capitalizing on stability: The owners and players said last July that having a 10-year deal would create better business opportunities across the board, since partners wouldn't need to worry about another work stoppage. They couldn't have been more right about that.

The ability to strike such a long deal helped first with the television contracts. More evidence of its benefits have been clear as the Buffalo Bills work to extend their agreement to play games in Toronto and also as the NFL works feverishly to expand its reach globally, a Herculean task the league has struggled with.

But perhaps the best example of the windfall of such stability is how it affects the great open NFL frontier of Los Angeles. With the CBA and television deals in place, the league has all the leverage in talks with groups in the nation's second largest media market. Those involved insist that the NFL is more than prepared to wait for the three elements it considers necessary to support a team to fall into place -- right team, right owner, right site.

The league is determined to get L.A. right in its next foray, knowing the enormous cost of messing up there again. And the CBA has paved the way for the NFL to exhibit the patience needed to do that.

The acrimony isn't ending anytime soon: There's no denying the recent and very public problems between the league and union. As good as former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had it 10 to 20 years ago, there are some key differences between their situation and the one facing Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith.

It starts with the fact that Tagliabue and Upshaw's relationship was built over decades. It continues with the reality that these are different times; there's less family ownership and more business-minded executives running teams these days, and players can command higher salaries and accumulate more power than ever before.

And that, of course, brings us right back to how much money is on the line. As much as things have changed since that muggy, sticky Washington morning, that's one constant that never will.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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