To Play or Not to Play? All Four Major Pro Sports Leagues Face New Labor Contracts

Akito Yoshikane

Fans show their feelings regarding the NHL lockout during the 2005 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship game in Nashville, Tenn.

Sports wonks know that 2010 will be a blockbuster year for the MLB and NBA when some of the leagues’ marquee players like LeBron James or Derek Jeter become free agents. But just as they conclude their contracts with their teams, collective bargaining agreements with their respective leagues are also set to expire, creating an aura of uncertainty over whether a labor deal could be reached by the start of the 2011 season.

And those two sports leagues won’t be alone. All four of the major American sports leagues – the MLB, NFL, NHL and the NBA – have expiring collective bargaining agreements, a lynchpin in sports that has evolved over the decades to become a boon for increasing players’ rights and salaries through the creation of a free agency system.

Though it may seem far off, representatives from both the players unions and the leagues in each organization are already unveiling their sticking points as preliminary talks begin. While the tug of war between the representatives of club owners and the players is sure to continue, some sports may see unrest, while others will try to avoid it this time around. Here’s a quick guide to what’s at stake in each league:

NFL

For the NFL, the current labor agreement will expire in March 2011 and the league has signaled it wants a dramatic new deal. Union chief DeMaurice Smith has claimed that the owners are intent on a lockout.

In an e-mail obtained by ESPN last week, Smith foretold a grim outlook for labor negotiations to player representatives. Debate over reduced retirement benefits, drug-testing details, and wage caps for rookie players were some issues yet to be settled.

But more importantly, the NFL wants players to take a 20-percent paycut. The league is heading into next season without a salary cap to the chagrin of the owners who have claimed economic distress. Despite concluding the eighth negotiating session on Tuesday, Smith says the NFL has not provided their financial statements to the union in order to vet the league’s claims.

I have a hard time understanding how a sport that generated eight billion dollars last year in a recession, and the owners get 49 percent of it, how that’s a bad deal,” Smith told The Detroit News. It’s hard for them (players) to hear a proposal to take a pay cut when there’s no decrease in revenue and no decrease in profit,” he said.

NBA

The 2009-10 season started last year with an impasse when the NBA threatened to use replacement referees after talks over a new labor agreement stalled, but the two sides came to terms just in time for the season opener. Still, the NBA is tightening their fiscal belt and wants players to follow suit. Commissioner David Stern revealed last year that half of the leagues 30 franchises lost money in 2008, and predicted league revenue to fall as much as 5 percent this season.

The players union and the league met last August for initial talks, but the owners have stated that the current system is not profitable and they cannot continue operating under these existing terms. The labor contract expires on June 302011.

MLB

Quite the opposite of the NBA and their league officials, the MLB reached a labor agreement with umpires in December to solidify a decade long peace in an otherwise contentious negotiation process that mirrored the players union in years past.

But if the umpire negotiations is any indicator, an agreement with the players union will be relatively smooth before the labor contract expires on December 11, 2011. Regarded as having one of the strongest unions, the MLB Players Association welcomed their new chief last year. Issues like revenue sharing and drug testing remain on the table, but the proposed changes are not dramatic. The cordial relations will help to avoid a lockout for the third time in a row.

NHL

Hockey has the dubious distinction of losing an entire season due to a labor dispute for the first time in sports history. The lockout in 2004-05 canceled 82 games and went without a Stanley Cup winner for the first time because of stipulations over player salaries. The league is gaining popularity after the lull, but hockey still faces challenges.

The NHL Player’s Association fired executive director Paul Kelly in August to find a successor for a revolving door position that has had four chiefs in four years. Still, baseball’s former union head Donald Fehr has joined the NHL in an advisory role to help steer the hockey union back on course. And with a lockout that nearly crippled the league just six years ago, they will surely do all they can to avoid another labor disaster.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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