Agent’s Take: Four meaningful concessions players should seek from NFL before

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell floated the idea of an 18-game regular season during a recent appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” He envisioned a reduction to two preseason games from the three exhibition contests NFL teams currently play, a second bye week during the regular season and the Super Bowl being held on Presidents’ Day weekend.

Playing 18 regular-season games has been long been a goal of the NFL. Owners made a push for 18 games during the negotiations for the 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement before eventually relenting. The current CBA gave the NFL discretion to increase the number of regular-season games from 16 to 17, which occurred in 2021. There is a provision preventing the addition of an 18th game until the current CBA expires, which is at the end of the 2030 league year (March 2031).

The only way the NFL can get an extra regular-season game before then is through agreement with the players union, the NFL Players Association. According to The Athletic’s Mike Jones, there haven’t been any discussions between the owners and the NFLPA about expanding the schedule.

The NFLPA received criticism for not getting enough from the owners for agreeing to a 17th game in the current CBA. It was a divisive issue as the players ratified the existing CBA by a narrow margin in March 2020.

An early engagement with the NFL on the 18th game could be the first big test for union executive director Lloyd Howell, who assumed the role in June 2023. It needs to be worth the players’ while for an expanded regular season to happen before the CBA expires.

The additional inventory of real games through an expanded regular-season schedule is the best path for the NFL to get an unprecedented increase over the latest media rights or television deals reportedly worth $113 billion over 11 years. The NFL has certainly taken note of the less popular NBA’s media rights deals being on the verge of going from $24 billion over nine years to a reported $76 billion over 11 years.

Expect the NFL to exercise a right to opt out of the current TV deals four years early in 2029 given the increase of the NBA packages. Ideally, the NFL would like the 18th game issue settled before the next negotiation of the deals. This might give the NFLPA leverage to extract meaningful concessions from the owners that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible.

Improve revenue split

The players’ first area of focus should be an improved revenue split with the owners. The current CBA increased the players’ share of league revenues from the average of 47% during the life of the previous labor agreement to a minimum of 48% with a maximum of 48.8%.

By contrast, NBA players get between 49% and 51% of basketball-related Income. The players’ revenue share has been at 51% recently.

NFL players should be adamant about getting at least 50% of league revenues. That was essentially the split under the 2006 CBA, which led to the owners’ lockout in 2011. The current CBA has a “media kicker” that is putting the players’ share to 48.5% because the NFL hit the necessary 60% increase threshold in the latest TV rights deals. A 120% increase would have triggered the maximum 48.8%. The “media kicker” concept could be retained for the players to have an opportunity to increase a newly agreed upon revenue floor.

Lifetime healthcare

Wanting an 18th regular-season game demonstrates the league and owners are hypocritical and disingenuous about being concerned with players’ health and safety. Intuitively, the risk of injury and adverse long-term health consequences will be greater with an additional game. It wouldn’t be surprising for the NFL to start citing some studies contradicting this notion much like its pushback against all stadiums have grass fields.

The NFLPA could advocate for the NFL to put its money where its mouth is on a player’s well being by providing lifetime health insurance for vested players. Generally, insurance runs out at the start of the next regular season when a player is released or retires.

It’s better for players who are considered as vested. To be vested, a player must have at least three credited seasons. A credited season is earned with three or more regular-season or postseason games on a 53-man roster, injured reserve or physically unable to perform list in a league year.

Vested players are provided insurance for an additional five years. Once the five years is up, vested players can tap into a healthcare reimbursement account, a collectively bargained for benefit, in which eligible health care expenses get reimbursed. There’s a specific dollar figure amount attributed to the year in which the credited season was earned. For example, players earning a credited season in 2023 got $40,000 in their account.

The longer a player’s career, the more money goes into his account.  The maximum is $450,000 for these accounts. An alternative to lifetime insurance would be modifying the healthcare reimbursement accounts where the $450,000 cap is removed.

Additional game check

A big sticking point for players with the 17th game was payment of the extra game for contracts signed under a 16-game regular season. Only after owners agreed to this demand did players become more receptive of the 17th game. It should be given that the concept would apply with an 18th game.

For players making more than their applicable minimum salary that were under contract as of Feb. 26, 2020 and remained once the 17th game went into effect were paid a bonus of 1/17th of their base salary if still on the team’s roster when the 17th game was played.

This continues for long as the contract is in effect and also applies to players who are traded. A simple contract restructure for salary cap purposes where money is converted to signing bonus and prorated hasn’t impacted the receipt of the additional game check.

A renegotiation where a player’s salary increases has extinguished the additional game check. It becomes incumbent for the player’s agent to account for this in the renegotiation. For example, Lions quarterback Jared Goff’s scheduled 2024 base salary was $22,300,064 before signing his four-year, $212 million contract extension to make him the NFL’s second-highest paid player at $53 million per year. A total of $1,311,768 was added to Goff’s new deal so he wouldn’t lose the additional game check relating to 2024 since his previous contract was signed in 2019.

Elimination of funding rules

Dialogue about an 18th game might create an opportunity for the NFLPA to push for the elimination of the rules relating to the funding of contract guarantees. Contrary to popular belief, guaranteed contracts in MLB and the NBA aren’t collectively bargained. Guaranteed contracts became customary in these sports because of individual players exploiting leverage in contract negotiations.

Leverage in having multiple teams willing to trade for Deshaun Watson is how the quarterback got a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract from the Cleveland Browns in March 2022 when he was acquired from the Houston Texans. Nobody else has been able to capitalize on Watson’s fully guaranteed deal.

The NFLPA cried foul at the lack of guaranteed contracts by filing a grievance alleging collusion among NFL owners during the latter part of 2022. Quarterback Lamar Jackson put up the best fight for a fully guaranteed contract before signing a conventional five-year, $260 million deal last spring to remain with the Baltimore Ravens.

The CBA practically requires that a team must place into an escrow account the amount of any guarantees beyond the first year of a contract other than those just for injury. The archaic funding requirement of guarantees in future contract years made sense in a different era when there were legitimate concerns about owners not being able to fulfill financial obligations. That hasn’t been the case for quite a while.

Teams use the funding rules as a convenient excuse as to why something can’t be done in player contract negotiations. I heard it on numerous occasions as an agent when negotiating contracts on behalf of clients. Now that I’m no longer an agent, a couple of team negotiators have told me that their owners have encouraged their use of the funding issue whenever it suits them.

The elimination of the funding requirement may not open the floodgates for guarantees contracts in the NFL. It might first lead to an increase of guarantees in the later years of a contract. There would be one less impediment for either of these things since owners wouldn’t be tying up money that could be put to other use.

Final thoughts

An 18th regular-season game seems inevitable. If the expanded regular-season schedule doesn’t happen before the current CBA expires, it will surely be a non-negotiable item for owners with the next labor agreement. If the past is any indication, the owners will do whatever it takes for the extra games, including instituting a work stoppage. It would be a shame if the NFLPA approached any negotiations for an early inclusion of an 18th game with this as an overriding consideration where the main thing the players got to show for the expanded schedule is an extra bye week.

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