When National Football League owners locked out players before the 2011 season, they did so claiming that the league’s financial system was driving it down a path of unsustainability. Even though league revenues were growing steadily, many owners, including Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, argued that they were destined for financial hardship because players were enjoying too large a share of the pie.
According to a team financial statement obtained by the Deadspin last week, however, Richardson wasn’t telling the truth. The Panthers, in fact, made more than $100 million in profits in 2011 and 2012, even as Richardson was claiming poverty:
The statement is for the years ending March 31, 2011, and March 31, 2012. Over the first period, as Richardson argued that the NFL’s business model was hopelessly broken and steered the owners toward a showdown to extract more money from the players, the Panthers recorded an operating profit of $78.7 million. The team had gone 2–14 on the field, but Richardson and his partners were able to pay themselves $12 million.
Over the following year, after the owners had won their lockout and reduced the players’ share of league revenue from 50 percent to 47 percent, the Panthers brought in $33.3 million in operating profit. Richardson began lobbying for public subsidies to renovate his 17-year-old stadium. The team went 6–10.
NFL teams, like franchises in other sports, aren’t required to disclose financial statements, and they refused to open their books when players asked during lockout negotiations. That allowed owners in a profitable league to claim poverty and hardship without any check into whether those claims were true. At the same time, tax breaks and special financing deals with the league allows NFL owners to make their financial pictures even more obscure.
As a result of that obscurity, labor disputes like the NFL’s become even more tilted away from players. Owners already hold leverage in such disputes, since the vast majority of players, unlike owners, depend on the game as their only source of income and players have short careers (the average NFL career is between three and six years long), so missing games or full seasons to negotiate more favorable bargaining agreements often isn’t palatable. The results, then, are predictable: owners are able to extract huge concessions from players to their direct financial advantage. In the NFL, NBA, and NHL, all of which locked out players in the last two years, players gave up substantial shares of revenue in their latest negotiations, and in the NFL, the salary cap is now growing at a far slower pace than it once was. While player salaries are still growing, the slowing growth of the salary cap means there will be less money to divide among them, even as the value of all 32 NFL teams continues to grow and league revenues continue to skyrocket.This isn’t just a football story. The player-owner relationship is emblematic of the problems facing workers across America. Corporate profits have grown to record levels, but workers’ wages have stagnated. Companies like Caterpillar that are raking in record profits of their own are forcing workers off the job and demanding concessions on salaries and health and pension plans. Corporations are using built-in advantages to rig the game against the workers, padding their bottom lines but making workers worse for it. It may be hard to sympathize with million-dollar professional athletes, but the fights they’re having aren’t altogether different from the fights workers are facing across America.