BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
NEW ORLEANS, LA — Driving from Louis Armstrong Airport into New Orleans isn't a very far drive but when there is traffic there is time to study billboards. There are a lot of billboards praising the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints with the sentiment being "Bless You Boys" or some similar phrase. The local newspaper has Saints stories on the cover and to some, the NFL team has provided hope in a city that was left in ruins by flooding after the August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Saints television games produce monster local ratings (New York Giants/Jets games are among the lowest rated TV fare in the NFL week after week in terms of percentage of TV households watching games.)
New Orleans appears to be slowly rising. Interstate 10 leads you right into the Lower Nine Ward once you get off on the North Claiborne Avenue exit. Life seems to be returning to an area of almost complete destruction. There are Saints banners there too. East of New Orleans, out towards Slidell on I-10, zombie malls, housing and the ruins of Six Flags amusement park remain. There is huge swath of land extending for miles and miles on Route 90 into Mississippi to Biloxi that still has extensive damage from the storm that happened 5 ½ years ago.
New Orleans natives (and some outsiders) rightly or wrongly credited the Saints football team in some of the Katrina healing process. But what happens if there is no NFL in 2011 because of labor strife? The National Football League is an entity, which pledged to help New Orleans rebound (and in the process to help further fill Saints owners Tom Benson's pockets).
That question may be answered sometime in the next few weeks. On Tuesday, Special Master Stephen Burbank will be in Manhattan holding a hearing which may go a long way in deciding what strategy the owners will take in the upcoming labor dispute with the players.
Burbank, who was appointed by a Federal judge to over see owners and players disputes, will listen to a number of witnesses and determine whether or not the owners can collect 2011 television rights fees from Rupert Murdoch's FOX, General Electric's NBC, Disney's ESPN, Sumner Redstone's CBS and DirecTV if there are no games because of a labor action. The owners TV partners are going to underwrite a lockout and the players are fighting back and are asking that the TV dollars, which is about $4 billion, are put into an escrow account and keep that money out of an owners' war chest. The players are contending that the NFL structured the TV deals so it would be guaranteed money even if there were a lockout in 2011 — while not maximizing revenue from other seasons when the league would have to share that income with players. The Players Association claims the TV deals violates a 17-year-old agreement between the sides that stipulates the league must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players. The NFL will say that the TV contracts routinely "have protected the league against the possibility that games might be lost.'' It should be an interesting hearing in Manhattan and there should be a subsequent Congressional hearing because the TV deals only help the owners and bring up two questions that need to be answered.
The Burbank hearing is quite narrow. It only involves the league and the TV monies. What it doesn't include is whether or not FOX's Rupert Murdoch, CBS' Sumner Redstone Jeffrey Immelt's General Electric's NBC network should be the proceeds from advertising by using public TV licenses to give NFL owners cash to underwrite lockout. The Federal Communications Commission should be monitoring Burbank's hearing. The FCC should also hold a hearing and invite Murdoch, Redstone and Immelt along with NFL officials to discuss the NFL TV agreements.
Congress, which rewrote cable TV rules in 1984 which helped fuel revenues for sports organizations, should look into Disney's ESPN-NFL deal as money is coming from both football fans and those who never watch a football game. Is it far for cable TV subscribers to pay for missed games? There is a strong possibility that ESPN will lose NFL games in 2011.
The NFL-players dispute is all about money. NFL owners want to reduce salaries by 18 percent. There is a reason that Congress and possibly local municipal cable TV boards should be get involved in the NFL labor talks. The 1961 Sports Broadcast Act passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy allowed the NFL to sell all of the league's 14 teams as one entity and that allowed NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to play CBS and NBC to bid against one, which violated antitrust laws, and that put more money into NFL owners pockets. The local cable boards can ask a significant question. Should subscribers be putting up money through their cable TV bill to support NFL owners?