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Tangle of hope, pessimism surrounds owners talks in Chicago

NFL owners will convene a meeting Tuesday that is the first of its kind: Called specifically to address a lockout that's now in its fourth month.

Previous summits in New Orleans and Indianapolis were labor heavy, to be sure, but were in concert with the normal league schedule. So this one -- in addition to the monthly meetings set from now until the dispute with the players is resolved -- is indeed different and reflective of the calendar.

And the hope is that as the owners break new ground in Chicago this week, they'll blaze a much more important path, paving the way to a new labor agreement sometime in the coming weeks.

The owners and players are coming off three sets of talks that were, according to those close to the discussions, by far the most substantive since the owners opted out of the now-expired 2006 collective bargaining agreement in 2008. According to sources from both parties, concessions are being evaluated and strongly considered on all fronts.

Of course, that's caused every bit of optimism to lead to speculation on a deal being close, and every bit of pessimism being groused over as a "breakdown."

Is that part of the normal ebb and flow of a negotiation that's just now getting serious? Probably. But there are issues that need to be managed on each side, within the constituency, particularly when you consider the adage that the best deals are the ones that leave both parties just a little dissatisfied.

Here are a few things to chew on ...

Owner "factions" aren't as well defined as some have portrayed them to be.

The easy thing to do here is to box owners into "deal-maker" and "hawk" categories. In actuality, it's not that simple at all. On nearly every issue, there are differing opinions and shifting alliances within the ownership. That'll make commissioner Roger Goodell's job -- to serve the interests of 32 teams, each with a unique circumstances -- a challenging one over the next few weeks.

At this meeting, the idea will be to get the 32 owners on the same page. That doesn't mean they'll agree on everything. But remember, just seven owners have been a part of the recent "secret" meetings, and so many will enter this meeting needing the update they'll get. Voices will be heard on all major issues, concerns will be aired, and the negotiating team's approach after the meeting will need to reflect those things.

The condition of the national economy will be raised.

Last week, the concerns some owners expressed over the economy's condition surfaced. Several owners -- including the very involved Robert Kraft from the New England Patriots, as well as the Miami Dolphins' Stephen Ross -- have a broader view of things, because of their involvement in businesses outside of football. These owners are sensitive to the condition of the national economy and the unemployment rate. Those owners want more substantive talks -- and less lawyering -- to balance a deal with those factors in mind.

That's not to say that anything raised by Kraft, Ross or any other owner will be a deal breaker. Kraft, of course, has been a major part of bringing the players and owners together, but his concern and potential resistance on this issue underscores the complexity of the overall situation within the ranks. It also shows the importance, on the part of both parties, on remaining thorough in this monumental negotiation, which everyone hopes will set the game up financially for some 20 years to come.

Expect to hear the word "true-up" plenty the next few weeks.

How to split up the $9-10 billion in revenue that's currently accounted for is one thing. How to account for future growth is probably more important, however, in solving the problem here. The players expect the revenue pie, if a deal is struck in time to save the preseason, to grow to $11 billion this year. And they're expecting another windfall when the new television deals, which will start in 2014, are negotiated.

Whether or not the league hits it out of the park in 2014 -- that's where the concern over the economy going forward comes in again -- the players are looking to protect themselves in case that grand-slam TV deal does come. So it's not so much what the number is today, but what it is two or three years from now, and how that number is calculated. The pegged cap (hard numbers, rather than percentages) is a big reason why the players pushed away from the table on March 11.

The players want "true-ups," percentages of the actual revenue above the projections, and how far the owners are willing to go in that department could be the make-or-break factor going forward.

Don't expect a vote.

There isn't one scheduled, and the expectation of one would probably be putting the cart ahead of the horse. Rather, this meeting will likely further empower those in the room, the labor committee members (the three constants thus far are Jerry Richardson, John Mara and Kraft) and Goodell, to speak on behalf of the larger group.

Whether these guys leave Chicago on Tuesday night or Wednesday, the idea is to make the process on the back end easier, so the larger group has an idea of the negotiating team's thinking and there's less potential for hang-ups when a deal is close.

Remember, the league's projection is that $1 billion will be lost if the preseason is cancelled. Whether that number is on target or not, the smaller the pot gets, the more difficult it becomes to negotiate a deal. There's still time, of course, to beat the clock on that, with some internal deadlines set for July 15 to save the preseason.

But there's no doubt that now, in Chicago and in the next round of "secret" meetings between owners and players, we've arrived at a critical juncture.

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