The owners and players have less than two weeks left until the March 3rd “deadline” to secure a labour deal and until yesterday, there were few positive signs.
On Thursday the two sides agreed to meet in front of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service today, and that will be followed by seven straight days of meetings. It’s unfortunate it took this long for them to commit to intensive negotiations, but better late than never.
Both the NFL and NFLPA have been meticulously tailoring their PR campaigns throughout the process. So far we think the players have the upper hand in the court of public opinion (you can let us know in the poll below), but first, let’s outline just what each side wants you to think.
First off, we should note that the players have the easier angle to win in the PR war. They aren’t asking for changes, which means they’re not looking to cancel next season, which is all most fans care about. The NFL has thrived recently, so the average fan has a difficult time seeing why anything must be altered.
That’s been the basis of the NFLPA’s PR efforts. The “Let Us Play” campaign doesn’t delve into any of the specific negotiating points, it gives the simple message that the players want to play, and the league won’t let them. There’s no reason to mention that the league may lock the players out because the current labour deal is one-sided. For the NFLPA, that’s superfluous information.
Of the key negotiating points, the 18-game season is probably the most contentious, and the one that fans are most concerned with. Here also, the NFLPA has an easy to understand message. Anyone that paid any attention to football this year knows that devastating hits and injuries were one of the preeminent themes of the 2010 season. Most fans wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of more high-quality football, but they can easily understand why the players wouldn’t want to subject their bodies to more punishment. All the concussions of the past season were unfortunate, but they also provided invaluable ammunition for the NFLPA at the negotiating table.
The NFLPA also scored big points following last week’s rumour that the NFL abruptly walked away from the negotiating table. As we already mentioned, the players aren’t the ones asking for change. So that they were willing to negotiate and the owners weren’t, which is how the incident has been interpreted, looks like a very strong compromise by the players. NFLPA Assistant Director of External Affairs George Atallah has said that the players would meet “whenever, wherever.” It’s impossible to know if that’s actually true, but it certainly has appeared that the players are far more interested in getting a deal done than the owners.
The owners face an uphill climb in the PR war for a few reasons. The most obvious is that the players are far more popular and beloved than the owners. Jerry Richardson, who owns the Panthers, has been a polarising figure during labour negotiations, but he’s not recognisable to fans. Even Carolina fans probably know more about 25 of their players than they do about Richardson. Fans will always be more likely to align with players, because those are the guys they root for, not the owners. Secondly, it’s hard for average fans to understand what possible problems there could be with the league when it’s well known that the NFL is in the middle of its most prosperous era ever. Fans think, “why should anything change when TV ratings are up, the Super Bowl continues to dominate the sports world, and parity is at an all-time high?’
Those are daunting obstacles for the NFL to overcome.
Of course, those obstacles could be overcome if the owners simply “opened their books.” Instead, the league has focused on repeatedly explaining that the players got an extremely favourable deal during the last CBA, and that if that continues, the NFL’s success is unsustainable. That’s difficult for fans (or the players themselves) to understand without examples and information, which so far the league has largely kept to itself.
It seems as though the league is fairly aware that it will struggle to win over the public, so it’s been making broad statements about the long-term health of the game. The problem is that that’s not something most fans particularly care about right now. They want football next season, period. Roger Goodell made the statement that he wanted “intensive, round the clock negotiations” but until today, the owners didn’t seem willing to follow through with that.
The truth is that the owners don’t need to spend so much time on their PR. Throughout sports history, owners have had the upper hand when negotiating new labour deals because they are better equipped to handle stoppages. That’s no different with the current situation, so the owners aren’t necessarily as concerned with winning over the public as the players. The key for the owners is that they must come across as willing to negotiate.
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