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Owners' failure to agree on revenue could spell trouble

Troy Vincent has seen the NFL from both sides of the economic spectrum -- the big-market Philadelphia Eagles and the small-market Buffalo Bills.

As president of the NFL Players Association, he is more knowledgeable about the economics of the game than any player in the league.

Vincent says the large-market teams must share some of their local revenues in order to ensure the NFL's long-term health.

"There's no question about it," the Bills' veteran safety said. "We understand the importance of having parity. It's just not about filling our pockets, not about increasing salaries. What's best for the sport? I'm not taking anything away from baseball, but we don't want one team with all the money to be able to sign all the players and another team in some of these localized markets that can't compete."

The NFL owners still are arguing over how to split their share of revenue. The league canceled this month's scheduled owners meeting in Atlanta because the agenda was mostly about striking a new collective bargaining deal with the players. The current deal runs out after the 2007 season. The owners went to the players union and said, "Let's settle the CBA now, we'll solve our revenue sharing later." The players balked.

"We're saying you have to fix that first before we even get back into talks about the collective bargaining extension," Vincent said.

The top eight teams in total revenue last season averaged about $75 million more than those in the bottom quarter, according to Forbes Magazine figures. The big-market teams were led by Washington, which had $287 million in total revenue, according to Forbes. Vincent said the Bills were about 26th. (Forbes puts Buffalo at $173 million.)

The growth in local revenues -- from stadium luxury suites, local sponsorships and other sources -- is the cause of the disparity. They aren't shared.

The problem is that the local revenue counts toward calculating the league-wide salary cap. That has gone up 37 percent since 2000 to $85.5 million a team this season. Lower-revenue teams fear this disparity is only going to get worse, making it harder for them to compete in free agency, not to mention facilities and other organizational costs like coaching salaries.

"The disparity is going to get larger, and you're going to have the haves and have-nots," Vincent said.

Vincent says it already has an affect on the recruiting of free agents.

"You look at locker rooms, facilities, parking lots, it's a big disparity," he said. "But you deal with it. I'm not complaining. It's about winning on the field. But eventually it affects who you can bring in. In this era, free agents are the missing pieces year in and year out. For me to bring in a free agent here, unless he wants to play for coach (Mike) Mularkey or wants to play next to me or whoever, I'm not going to dazzle him in Orchard Park or Hamburg. The Bisons are not going to get it done for extracurricular activities."

"I love the stadium we have here," Vincent said. "I love the atmosphere. But you look at all the skyboxes and the luxury seating and the amenities at the newer stadiums in big markets and you can see where the disparity comes from."

It's also cheaper for teams to spend a greater percentage of their salary cap money on base salaries as opposed to signing bonuses, which come out of the team's pocket in a big chunk right away.

"Obviously that's a factor right now every year," he said.

The obvious compromise for owners is to share a certain percentage of local revenues (34 percent is a figure that has been thrown around) but make sure the lower-revenue teams meet "qualifiers" in order to get any subsidy from the rich teams. Those qualifiers could be tied to how aggressive the smaller teams are working to maximize their profits in their own markets.

Understandably, big-market owners like Dallas' Jerry Jones and Houston's Bob McNair don't want to allow the smaller teams to lazily sit back and reap the benefits of the big teams' entrepreneurship.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue needs to push that compromise along this fall and winter. The 2006 season is the last year of the current CBA with a salary cap. The 2007 season is an "uncapped year." Teams will be able to spend as much as they want on players that season. The tradeoff for players is they won't hit free agency in an uncapped year until they reach six years in the league (currently it's four years). Vincent said the players are willing to make the tradeoff if the owners can't solve their own issues.

"We are ready to go into the uncapped year," Vincent said.

If that happens owners will be risking killing their golden goose.

"If we get to that uncapped year," Vincent said, "guess where those franchise values are going to go? The arrow will be pointing straight down. You need a salary cap to keep the franchise values up."

There's a thought that might actually get the big-market teams to compromise.

> Rice or Hutson?

Jerry Rice is widely being hailed as the greatest receiver of all time in the wake of his retirement this week. It might be true. In fact, he might be the greatest of all time at any position (although my vote still goes to Jim Brown). However, his standing as the all-time best receiver is not the slam dunk many think. One could make an argument that Green Bay's Don Hutson, who played from 1935 to '45, was as great or greater than Rice, a position championed in recent years by Sports Illustrated's Peter King.

Rice ends his career with 22,895 receiving yards. No. 2 is Tim Brown with 14,934. Rice has 1,549 catches. Cris Carter is No. 2 with 1,101. Rice has 197 TD catches. Carter is No. 2 at 130. Those are phenomenal gaps.

But when Hutson retired in '45 with 488 catches for 7,991 yards and 99 touchdown catches, his numbers for each category were roughly three times greater than any other receiver to that point. His record of 99 TDs stood until 1989 -- 44 years!

Like another old-time great, Otto Graham, Hutson had freakish athleticism that transcended any era. He had good size -- at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. He won the Southeastern Conference 100-yard dash title for Alabama in 1934 with a time of 9.8 seconds.

In this era of maximum sports exposure, it's common for television networks to act like sports history goes back only so far as their video library. Hutson was a giant, just like Rice.

> Quotable

Defensive end Travis Johnson, Houston's first-round draft pick, on playing for Florida State as a freshman in a 55-13 win over Duke: "My first college start was against Duke, but that doesn't count. I don't know if we even put in our mouthpieces and taped our ankles. I think we just played in our practice shoes. The Duke players told us, 'It doesn't matter what happens today because ya'll are going to be working for us in a few years, anyway. What's your SAT score?' Man, the coach was so mad that they scored a touchdown, he made us run gassers. I mean, the only way Duke's supposed to score is on a test."

> Onside kicks

* Ben Graham, a 31-year-old Aussie, is set to become the oldest rookie in history to start an NFL season when he punts for the Jets. The distinction belonged to Vince Papale, who was 30 when he made his improbable debut, Sept. 12, 1976, for the Eagles. Graham formerly was a star for the Geelong Cats of the Australian Rules Football League.

* San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson says his goal this year is to break Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105 yards.

* Bend but don't break. In a statistical oddity from Stats Inc., the defenses of last year's Super Bowl participants led the NFL in 10-play drives allowed. The Bills' defense was fourth. The Eagles allowed 34 drives of 10 plays or more. Next came the Patriots (33), followed by Detroit (32), Buffalo (31), Oakland (30) and the Vikings (30).

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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