As the NFL celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Super Bowl, a dark cloud is hovering over the league that could affect how it does business in the future.
Negotiations between the league and the NFL Players Association on extending the collective bargaining agreement have stalled to the point that neither side is optimistic of a breakthrough anytime soon.
"We're not making the kind of progress we need to be making," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday during his annual state of the league address. "I don't think negotiations are going very well. I think that there needs to be an additional dose of reality on both sides of the table. I think that, to some degree, positions are hardening when they shouldn't be hardening."
Tagliabue's comments came a day after NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw painted a similarly bleak picture during his organization's news conference.
"[Tagliabue] seems to believe that we take one step forward and two steps back," Upshaw said Thursday. "I don't agree with that. I think we take one step forward and five steps back because we're farther apart now than when we started."
Upshaw hinted that there might be legal action or even decertification of the union if an agreement isn't reached. Tagliabue doesn't think it will come to that but conceded those are possibilities.
The league and its owners have been negotiating for more than a year on an extension to the contract first agreed upon in 1993 and extended four times.
The agreement ends after the 2007 season, but if a new deal is not signed this year, 2007 will be an "uncapped" year, meaning the most aggressive owners would be able to spend freely on players without the restrictions of a salary cap.
"If we go to an uncapped year, we won't come back," said Upshaw, who added no agreement will make it difficult for teams to sign free agents and draft picks. "If we are having difficulty now reaching an agreement, I don't want to imagine what it will be like in 2007 when there's an uncapped year because if they don't like our proposal now they really won't like it when we go further out because the price of poker will go up."
A NFL without a salary cap would be potentially devastating for small-market teams like the Buffalo Bills because they wouldn't be able to compete with big-money teams like Dallas and Washington for players.
If owners' spending goes unchecked, the fear is the NFL would be like Major League Baseball, where the low-revenue teams have almost no chance to win each year.
"The greatest concern that I have, and I think (Bills owner) Ralph Wilson and many people have, is that we keep a competitive balance within the league," Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said Friday. "As this Super Bowl shows, it's good to have different teams winning and emerging.
"We don't have any idea what would happen if an agreement isn't reached, but certainly that's something we'd like to avoid. That's why we need to move quickly to resolve our differences."
The impasse between the owners and NFLPA is the percent of revenues that goes to the players. Under the current system, the players get 64.5 percent of designated gross revenues. The union wants 61 percent of all revenues, while the owners are offering 57 percent.
But the biggest problem exists with the owners, who can't agree on what money should be shared among their teams.
NFL teams share revenue from ticket sales, TV contracts and merchandising, but high-revenue teams who make more money from additional sources such as luxury suites, signage, parking and local advertising are balking at contributing the same percentage of their income as low-revenue franchises.
The NFLPA's position is no agreement will be reached until the owners find common ground on shared revenue.
"The dilemma does lie with the owners," said Bills safety and NFLPA President Troy Vincent, who indicated there are about 10 large-market owners slowing the process. "Once they come up with how they are going to share revenue amongst each other, now we can get back at the table and talk about some of the other underlying issues."
Upshaw said there wouldn't be a lockout or strike if the union was decertified. Asked if the league owners would use replacement players if there is no deal when the contract expires, Upshaw said the major television networks would have something to say about that. CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN recently paid $24 million for the rights to televise NFL games.
"I know if you paid that kind of money you bought prime rib and they don't want to see hot dogs," Upshaw said.
The league hopes it never comes to that. Tagliabue hasn't give up hope that talks will progress, but he's doubtful any significant movement will take place before the NFL meetings begin March 25 in Orlando, Fla.
"A lot of things get done at the 11th hour and 59th minute," he said. "I'm not optimistic, but that's what a difficult negotiation usually entails."