NFL's problems pale in comparison to those of NBA, NHL

Picketing Eagles (from left) Junior Tautalatasi, Reggie White, and Brad Booth blocked the entrance to the Vet in 1987.
Picketing Eagles (from left) Junior Tautalatasi, Reggie White, and Brad Booth blocked the entrance to the Vet in 1987.
Posted: March 06, 2011

On Oct. 18, in the month baseball heroes are made, the game's biggest team, the New York Yankees, played the Texas Rangers as part of a series that would send one of the squads to the World Series.

Despite the championship implications and the star power in the Bronx, though, more viewers turned their eyes to Florida, where two mediocre NFL teams from small markets met in a routine Week 6 contest.

The football game, a 30-3 rout featuring the Tennessee Titans over the Jacksonville Jaguars, drew a 7.2 rating, compared with a 6.5 for the taut Yankees-Rangers matchup.

It was a telling illustration of the NFL's dominance of the sports landscape.

The league's $9.3 billion annual revenue - fueled by $4 billion in TV money - is easily the most of the four major professional sports.

Perhaps that success, and the desire to keep it going, was in part behind the two extensions this week that avoided, for now, an all-out labor battle between NFL owners and players.

Money has not bought happiness for NFL owners, who argue that player costs are rising faster than revenue and want to reshape the way the league's income is split. But any of the NFL's projected problems stands in stark contrast to those of the NBA and NHL, where some teams are losing money today.

The latest Forbes team valuations showed more than half of the franchises in both the NBA and NHL are in the red in terms of operating income - profits before debt is counted. Only two NFL teams had negative operating income, according to Forbes.

"The NFL, they're saying their profits are leveling off. The NBA has said they're taking it in the shorts," said Maury Brown, president of the Business of Sports Network.

As a result, the NBA may be headed to a labor showdown of its own when its collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of June. Their owners, like those in the NFL, are eyeing a cut in player salaries.

Franchise tags

One of the biggest contrasts between the two leagues was on display over the last several weeks. In Philadelphia, Michael Vick, the Eagles' biggest star, neared the end of his contract. But the team used its "franchise tag" on the quarterback, preventing him from reaching free agency and assuring that he will remain in Philadelphia.

In the NBA, however, Carmelo Anthony, one of the league's biggest names, used his soon-to-expire contract to force his way out of Denver. The Nuggets had no choice but to trade away their best player, one they had drafted and built around.

Some small-market NBA owners are now reportedly advocating for an NFL-style franchise tag that would help them retain top players.

Much more significant, the NBA owners are said to be seeking a 38 percent cut in player pay, a move intended to get struggling teams back to profitability.

"It's well-marketed, it's well-managed, it has a labor deal that under the current rules and current procedures is not sustainable," said sports business analyst Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd.

NFL owners have made a similar argument, though their teams, big and small, remain largely profitable.

The NBA, however, has at least one trait the NFL is trying to adopt: a rookie wage scale. While even highly touted rookies such as Anthony get rookie deals locked in by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, top NFL draft picks receive massive contracts before ever playing a down, something owners and players both want to change.

NHL, MLB peace

While the NFL and NBA stare down potential work stoppages, the NHL is the most recent league to go through one, losing its entire 2004-05 season to a lockout. The missed season added further damage to a league whose prestige had already slipped.

By any measure the NHL lags far behind other professional leagues, but with rules changes making for more exciting games and innovations such as the annual outdoor Winter Classic, the league has rebounded somewhat.

"The NHL is on an upswing," Ganis said, though many teams still lose money, despite the implementation of a hard salary cap after their lockout.

The NHL had a record $2.7 billion in revenue last season. Its collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until Sept. 15, 2012.

Baseball's CBA, meanwhile, expires Dec. 11, but there has been little rancor between ownership and players.

"They have found a way to coexist," Ganis said.

NFL owners and athletes have been able to say the same for more than three decades, contributing to the game's popularity. Its constant presence every fall Sunday is a big part of why, as the NFL enters another week with a negotiating deadline, so many fans are watching the outcome, from Philadelphia and New York to Nashville and Jacksonville.


Big Money

Here are some numbers that compare the four major pro leagues:

REVENUES

NFL: $9.3 billion (2010-11 season)

MLB: $7 billion

(2010 season)

NBA: $4.3 billion (2009-10 season)

NHL: 2.7 billion (2009-10 season)

AVERAGE SALARIES

NBA: $5.8 million

MLB: $3.3 million

NHL: $2.4 million

NFL: $1.9 million

SOURCES: Variety, Los Angeles Times, MLB.com; Business Week, Forbes.com, CBSSportsline.com


 

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JonathanTamari

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