For the past several months, the globe has been occupied by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. An equal or greater number of livelihoods have also been hurt by the knock-on effects of the virus, which include lockdowns and stay-at-home orders put in place by governments worldwide.
The economy as a whole has taken a hit unseen in peacetime since the Great Depression, with the sports industry bearing a large brunt of the recession. While the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and other professional and amateur sports associations have been on hiatus since the spring, America continues to stressfully ponder over football's return in the fall. Can the NFL and possibly the NCAA find a way to make the season work, with or without fans? A lost football season would mean billions of dollars lost in revenue, including an arguably bigger absence in the autumn lives of countless Americans who depend on the sport for entertainment on Saturdays and Sundays.
But while the leagues will fight for seasons mirroring something as close to reality as possible, could the current crisis actually have saved a future football season?
NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement
The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is a contract negotiated between the NFL Players Association and the league's owners, with its terms up for renewal approximately every decade. The CBA determines the revenue split between players and owners, regulates aspects of given player's contracts, places limits on practice hours in the preseason, and even sets rules on recreational drug usage. Each major North American sports league has a CBA in place.
Prior to 2020, the CBA between had last been negotiated in 2011, with revenue splits, season length and certain player contract rules included in the agreement. Because a deal between labor and management was reached as soon as late July, that Fall's season went on as planned, even though much of the offseason had been overshadowed by a lockout. But what if a deal hadn't happened as quickly? A work stoppage could have canceled part or all of the season, as what happened to parts of the 2011-12 NBA and 2012-13 NHL seasons.
Football in Question?
Now, fast forward to today's NFL. The CBA implemented in 2011 was seen by many players as favoring the owners, as team revenues shot up while player salaries remained stagnant at best, especially for younger talent. Many parties representing the players spent years gearing up for the next round of negotiations, promising not to go down without a fight. NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith said in 2017 that a disruption to the 2021 season was "almost a virtual certainty." NFL insider Adam Schefter reported in January 2019 that new coaches' contracts were already being prepared for a work stoppage or "some type of disruption."
The union published a sobering "lockout guide" for players that August, urging players to prepare for a world without cash for both big expenses and even basic costs such as restaurant meals. Even star receiver Jarvis Landry told his fellow players to "save your money." By the looks of everything, all stakeholders should have begun to buckle up for a bumpy ride.
Some very divisive issues separated owners and players during negotiations, including the addition of an extra regular season game, playoff expansion, rookie contracts and marijuana policy. Given the general sense of dismay among players after 2011, compromise was something many in the union were very wary of, and a lack of compromise during negotiations can be recipe for indefinite stalemate, especially in a business that is worth the GDP of a small country.
The 2020 offseason would be the last chance for both parties to strike a deal before key components of the next offseason—and possibly regular season—could be jeopardized. But just as players and owners were returning to the negotiating table, the sports world began to collapse due to the pandemic, with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell's coronavirus diagnoses turning the NBA upside down, before virtually every other league and major event would also shut down very soon after.
Just four days after the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder's tumultuous game cancelation and subsequent league shutdown, the NFLPA approved the new CBA presented to them by the league by a razor-thin 1,019-959 margin, effectively changing a number of major league norms and rules while simultaneously guaranteeing the league's long-term labor stability, a far cry from the doomsday predictions surrounding the likelihood of a lockout. But what changed so many players' minds about the deal in such a relatively short timeframe?
Did Coronavirus Bring Both Parties Together Quicker?
It's impossible to ignore the virus' possible impact on this front. Before the pandemic was on the minds of most Americans, star cornerback Richard Sherman made public his disdain for the proposed deal back in February. Former NFL MVP and quarterback Aaron Rodgers announced his vote to reject the deal that same month, citing concerns with the additional regular season game. After 2011, a large segment of the player population felt that they conceded too much, and that they had more to win by playing a version of hardball with ownership.
But in the final days leading up to the union's overall decision, the headlines were overwhelming filled with a common theme of coronavirus and the disruptions it was causing, especially to sports. The NBA may lose as much as $1 billion due to the effects of the pandemic, while MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently proclaimed that a lost season could result in an excruciating $4 billion price tag. Is it possible that with the painful amount of uncertainty the world faces on a public health and economic front, that an additional $600 million to players in the form of a higher minimum salary and salary cap was too good to pass up when little else could be taken for granted? Given how close the vote among union members was, it isn't a stretch to think that just 31 minds were swayed out of the 1,978 total votes, or just 0.016 percent of all voting members, which would have swung the vote in the other direction. According to USA Today, the league made $16 billion in revenue in 2018, with much of that bottom line going into the pockets of players. While some members of the players association would have preferred to see a larger share of the pie end up on their side, having two seasons in a row potentially result in revenue loss (one due to the virus and another because of the labor dispute) was a risk that many players may not have been simply willing to take.
It's important to remember that it's still too early to know for sure what will happen with the 2020 season. While analysts, governmental associations and the league itself may be quietly optimistic about this fall, a lot can change in the three to four months ahead, both for the better and for the worse. Even assuming the season occurs as scheduled, the loss of many or all fans in the stands could present a loss in some ticket revenue for the league and its teams, although a majority of the sport's revenue still comes from TV contracts.
It's also imperative to consider the possibility that owners and players could have settled their differences regardless of how the pandemic played out, or even had it not taken the country by surprise at all. While both sides as well as fans took delight in having the deal done when it was, it's important to consider that over a year remained until the 2021 season would have become in danger of major disruptions.
But when looking back at some of the trial balloons leaked by both negotiating parties over the past several years, it's clear that talks were not expected to be overly amicable by any stretch. Both the league's labor and ownership had been gearing up for some ugly battles and consequences, which would have negatively affected their respective financial situations. It takes strong pretexts to alter people's motivations on polarizing issues. But it is very possible that enough players saw the pandemic as a reason to get the impending labor battle behind them, even if it meant making some concessions they wouldn't otherwise make.
It begs the question that coronavirus may have saved the 2021 NFL season. Should the 2020 season be able to occur (insiders are growingly optimistic that it will), then we could be looking at a real scenario where instead of losing a fall of football, the pandemic may have saved a football season for the country.