NFL labor situation a hot topic in Dallas

DALLAS—Labor negotiations between NFL players and owners are taking center stage at this year’s Super Bowl events in Dallas—and casting an ever-larger shadow over the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

On Wednesday, National Football League officials told the media their side of the story. On  Thursday, NFL Players Association boss DeMaurice Smith called a news conference to explain where the players stand on the issue.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to address the labor issue Friday.

Many of the credentialed media members covering this year’s Super Bowl are predicting owners will lock out the players after the current NFL collective bargaining agreement expires March 3.

Indianapolis’ 2012 Super Bowl host committee sent two members, Brad Carlson and Bill Benner, to listen in on Wednesday’s news conference featuring NFL Executive Vice President of Labor/League Counsel Jeff Pash.

Pash fielded a barrage of questions from more than 100 reporters, including inquiries about how Indianapolis will be compensated should the labor situation scuttle the 2011-12 season and the Super Bowl set to be held in Lucas Oil Stadium next February.

Pash said no contingency plans have been made for a cancelled season and Super Bowl. But NFL spokesman Greg Aiello later said that Indianapolis would be taken care of in the unlikely event the Super Bowl was cancelled.

“We’re telling everyone our focus is 100 percent on reaching an agreement,” Pash said. “Our goal is to have uninterrupted football.”

Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis, said he thinks the two sides are setting up for protracted negotiation that could shorten the season.

“Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith got their jobs by appealing to the extreme factions of their constituency,” said Roberts, a former NFL attorney who worked alongside ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. “Neither side can afford to back down, and I don’t expect them to for quite some time. I’m not convinced the season will be entirely cancelled, but I do think this labor situation could go unresolved into next season.”

Former sports-radio personality Eddie White, who is in Dallas this week as a member of the Indianapolis Host Committee, said next season might be shortened, but that shouldn’t prevent the 2012 Super Bowl from taking place.

“There were labor situations in 1982 and 1987 that affected those seasons, and the Super Bowls weren’t affected or diminished at all those years,” said White, who, as a former liaison to the NFL for Reebok, has seen numerous Super Bowls. “I don’t expect this situation to have any noticeable impact on next year’s game in Indy. It’s still going to be an unbelievable opportunity to showcase the city.”

Roberts, though, is calling the potential labor disaster “a perfect storm” that the league has never seen before. On Tuesday, Pash essentially admitted the two sides couldn’t agree on how the league’s revenue and expense figures should be interpreted.

Pash said the league needs more money for stadium construction in places such as San Francisco and Minnesota and expansion in places like Los Angeles and Europe, as well as investments in technology that will enhance the way fans view games and keep up with the league.

Underlying the seriousness of the potential lockout, sources within the league said that Frank Supovitz, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, has had recent discussions with the Indianapolis delegation about the possible impact labor strife could have on the big game in 2012.

Before the reality of serious labor problems set in, NFL owners were expected to select a 2015 Super Bowl site no later than this October. Those plans are now on hold.

Allison Melangton, CEO for the Indianapolis’ Super Bowl Host Committee, said the NFL has taken a “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” approach to the potential lockout’s effect on Indianapolis.

When questioned about Indianapolis donors that raised $25 million to help host the event, Melangton said protecting their interests is one of her top priorities.

“I know the NFL will be fair to us,” she said. “We’re in constant contact with our donors and supporters, and are very mindful of their interests. Right now, [donors] are 100 percent confident and unconcerned about an [NFL] work stoppage.”

Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Center spokesman Chris Gahl, who is in Dallas this week pitching the Circle City to thousands of media members and corporate decision-makers, said he’s confident the Super Bowl will be held one of the first two weeks in February 2012.

A postponement beyond the second week of February would cause problems.

Indianapolis is set to host three huge conventions during the last two weeks of February and the first week of March 2012. Those events, Gahl noted, are expected to net $43 million in direct visitor spending for Indianapolis.

Those events pale in comparison with the Super Bowl, which is projected to bring in more than $100 million in visitor spending, but ICVA members have no interest in rescheduling other conventions that have been attracted by the recently opened $275 million addition to Indiana Convention Center.

“We’re jam-packed,” Gahl said. “It should be a really big month for us.”

The ICVA also plans to use the 2012 Super Bowl as a huge sales tool, inviting some of the world’s biggest meeting planners—many who have never been to Indianapolis—for a special Super Bowl party.

“Our message loud and clear will be, ‘If we can host a Super Bowl, we can host your convention,’” Gahl said.

ICVA members are in a big push to fill the larger Convention Center, and cancelling the game or pushing it back could mean a missed opportunity in the effort to bring in more conventions, local tourism officials said.

“Sixty percent of the 150,000 Super Bowl attendees are corporate decision-makers,” Gahl said. “Getting our message out to that audience is a high priority.”

Meanwhile, Pash said the NFL owners’ top priority is the fans.

“We need intensive, serious, ongoing negotiations,” Pash said. “If we do that, we will honor the commitment the fans have made to us.”

After sitting in on Pash’s crowded press conference, Benner said he was skeptical about what he heard from the NFL brass.

“I wish I could believe them when they say their No. 1 commitment is their fans,” said Benner, a former longtime sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. “Both sides’ No. 1 priority is to their bottom line. As fans, we’ve  become enablers. The NFL is the hottest ticket, not only in Indianapolis, but across the nation.”

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