Despite the rhetoric, the two sides can still negotiate as their legal options unfold, and the fight doesn't seem big enough for either owners or players to risk losing regular-season games, three sports business experts said in recent weeks. But they also forecast a long court fight before the league and players face the kind of deadline pressure that can prompt a deal.
"The next deadline, and I don't know that it's written in stone, would be reaching an agreement before any regular-season games are impacted," said Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane sports law program.
Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said a deal seems most likely in July or August, "enough time to save the season."
That's when the most financial pressure mounts. Owners don't expect to begin losing consequential sums of money until late summer and players face their largest losses if they begin missing game checks in September.
Rosner, Feldman, and Michigan sports business professor Rodney Fort all said the NFL is so healthy that it doesn't make sense for either side to fight so long that regular-season games are lost and severe damage is risked.
"Ultimately in the sports industry, certainly, and a lot of others as well, you do not have a work stoppage unless one of the parties is seeking a sea change," Rosner said.
The NFL spat "seems only about fighting over who gets what out of the pie," Fort said. "Fundamental issues are not there."
Even on the revenue divide, the biggest issue of them all, the sides did not seem that far apart Friday. The owners' last offer asked players to give up $320 million a year; the players said they offered $550 million over four years - about $137.5 million per year.
The academic experts were interviewed for this story in the days before the original March 3 collective bargaining agreement deadline. While extensions delayed the union decertification and league lockout, the legal steps played out as forecast. What comes next is hazy.
The lockout halts league business and player movement, except for April's draft. Both sides will now try to score court wins that could build leverage.
If a lockout is blocked, owners could be forced to impose new work rules, and the players would challenge the rules with an antitrust suit, threatening treble damages, but NFL business and games would proceed as the court fight played out.
The league, however, will challenge the union decertification in an attempt to make the lockout stick and protect itself from antitrust claims. If the league wins, or an injunction is overturned on appeal, business could stop until a deal is reached.
Players have long accused the owners of seeking a lockout, but the NFL said its hand was forced.
"The union's abandonment of bargaining has forced the clubs to take action they very much wanted to avoid," the league said in its statement. "The league has informed the union that it is taking the difficult but necessary step of exercising its right under federal labor law to impose a lockout of the union."
The statement added, "The clubs believe that this step is the most effective way to accelerate efforts to reach a new agreement without disruption to the 2011 season."
Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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