The current NFL/NFLPA collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2020 season ends. In 2011, the owners locked out the players for 18 weeks but, –luckily — the league didn’t miss any games. It’s generally accepted the owners ended up with a beneficial deal in the last negotiation. Now, there aren’t any rose-colored glasses when it comes to 2021. Before last year’s season began, NFLPA president Eric Winston called a labor stoppage “inevitable.” No one really knows where the league and players’ union relationship is currently. At some points, it looks to be on the upswing while other times it looks like they are further apart than ever before. One thing that’s pretty certain is that there won’t be an early extension to the CBA. Things could get contentious when it comes to negotiations — as they always do in any attempt to make a deal. But, this time could be different for the players as they may have a tool they haven’t had recently: another option for employment.
Football is unique in that the only major league in the world capable of paying players what they are worth is in the United States of America. If basketball players are locked out, they could take a slight pay cut but still play in multiple European countries and China. There are leagues in northern Europe and Russia for hockey players. MLB players aren’t as lucky but they could go to Japan or Asia if they were desperate for a paycheck. Football players have no other option. There’s not a football league in the world that could pay them to make it work. There’s also not enough interest abroad. That lack of options is going to change for football players. In 2021 there will be one league that has a billionaire backer that wants to make a huge splash. There’s another group of people who have cornered some interesting markets.
Vince McMahon’s XFL is set to launch in 2020. McMahon is a unique personality. He’s aggressive. He has a keen eye for entertainment. He also has a lot of money. His current net worth is around $3.2 billion according to Forbes. McMahon is exactly the type of person who will throw money around to generate buzz and attention. He’s already committed to spend around $500 million on the league. That number is nowhere the $4.6 billion in player salary spent by the NFL, but he also doesn’t need every player in the NFL. He just needs a few big names to get the attention he wants. McMahon could focus on star power names and give them guaranteed money. If that helps the XFL grow, even better.
Of course, that doesn’t answer a specific problem: the NFL isn’t just made up of stars that Vince McMahon would want. There are players on the backend of rosters who need jobs too. Those players could theoretically try and land temporary rosters spots in the Alliance of American Football. The AAF starts in 2019 and is set to play its 10-week schedule almost immediately after the end of the NFL season. Yes, the AAF would have to move its schedule back — as would the XFL — but maybe they take that chance if they know NFL players would be interested in playing in the league. The AAF may not be as much as an option since its TV partner is CBS and CBS has a relationship with the NFL. Or maybe not. The CEO and co-founder of the AAF is Charlie Ebersol. Charlie is the son of Dick Ebersol who took on the NFL with Vince McMahon during the first run of the XFL.
It’s obviously not completely seamless. There would be lawsuits. The NFLPA would have to decertify — it already did so once to sue the NFL in 2011. Teams would sue players who wanted to play in the competitor leagues — or maybe even hold it against them in future negotiations. Players would sue for the right to work in the other leagues. There would be a ton of lawyers, appeals, and sports-law experts involved. Free agents would be able to go to another league, but they’d want a way out of their contracts once the work stoppage ends.
It’s in the XFL and AAF’s interest to be a part of this discussion and at least talk to free agents if there is a work stoppage. At worst, it benefits the competitor leagues in marketing value alone.
Owners may see the XFL and AAF option for players as an idle threat, but even if that’s the case its a leverage point for the NFLPA. Players have talked loudly about their expectations for a prolonged fight. At first, there were rumblings about fully-guaranteed contracts, now those comments are openly discussed in interviews and on Twitter. The players and the union can leverage how owners have handled the protests during the anthem — which the owners would simply like to go away. There will need to be negotiations about marijuana and gambling. The more leverage points for the players, the better.
Owners will want to avoid a lockout, especially with ratings’ trends, cord cutting, and other business issues that don’t look like they are going away any time soon. The players should and will use every ounce of leverage to get as much out of the league as possible. That’s their responsibility. The competitive league threat is an option even if it’s a small threat.