Off-Putting Off-Season

January 25, 2010 | Thyrl Nelson

As a beaten down Orioles fan, I’m torn when it comes to the latest round of labor unrest in the NFL. Forced now to endure a decade plus of losing, largely due to the market disparities between the Orioles and key divisional rivals, it’s tough not to be intrigued about the possibility of an uncapped NFL. It’s also kind of hypocritical.

On the surface, the Ravens would seem to be big winners if indeed the NFL goes spend happy. They have a stadium that’s never been at less than capacity for an NFL game, with 70,000 strong season ticket holders, who paid substantial fees for the simple right to buy those tickets. Cashing in season tickets now not only means forgoing the game day experience, but also losing substantial upfront cash investment. It would seem that there’s little danger of M&T Bank Stadium housing many empty seats anytime soon, regardless of the economy.


Even more glaring about the Ravens’ potential position in an uncapped NFL is the makeup of the rest of the AFC North. It’s intriguing to think how competitive the Orioles might be if they shared a division with Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. As it pertains to the NFL, you’d figure the Steelers will have a lot more marketing muscle than their baseball counterparts because of their national following, but Cleveland and Cincinnati, both already notoriously cheap would likely sink to the path of least resistance, a-la Bob Irsay in the late 70’s and into the 80’s.


The Ravens and Steelers then, would likely become the Yankees and Red Sox of the AFC North, and could run off for the division and a wild card almost every year, perhaps due in large part to 4 built in games with Cleveland and Cinci. The NFC East would likely become the most interesting division in all of sports; with the mega-market Giants in competition with the highly valued and deep pocketed Redskins and Cowboys. Life would likely get pretty tough for the Eagles, who occupy a market that’s by no means small.


The other likely undesired result of an uncapped NFL going forward would be more franchise relocations. Can you imagine how quickly a team would jump to get to LA if profitability and market size were directly tied to viability on the field? Can you imagine two?


Fans in Baltimore will remember the circumstances that led to the Colts departure from town. As it was explained to me, Irsay was already getting his communist-like share of the NFL’s revenue pie, and with no salary cap or floor decided to pocket as much of that money as possible and reinvest little in his team. Resigning to losing, and therefore not spending insured profitability, but also wore on the fans. As the fans hopes dwindled, so did their interest, and likewise ticket sales. Since selling tickets is one way to insure personal profit as an NFL team, 10 years of guaranteed sellouts, luxury suites and a fan base so starved for NFL football that they’d settle for the Colts was too enticing to pass up for an owner who only saw dollars signs in the first place.


On a side note, it’s arguable that the Orioles are headed down that same path. Baseball however has only managed to relocate one franchise in recent memory, and in attempting to do so had considerable difficulty finding a suitable suitor. That’s never been the NFL’s problem, not to mention that the NFL could probably fit another team in Chicago and two in Los Angeles already, two of the nation’s top three media markets.


So far, it seems that we’re still largely in the dark about the potential of the NFL’s continued labor unrest, and maybe that’s for the best. Both sides have seemingly done a pretty good job at laying out their best and worst case scenarios, and most of us are probably guessing that the solution will lie somewhere in the middle. Until then though, fans usually primed for the excitement of the off-season, free agency and the draft, are left to wonder just what this off-season will or won’t have in store.


For their part, for now the Ravens are bound by the Final Eight rules regarding free agency. As one of the last eight teams remaining, but not the final four, the Ravens will have some restrictions going into free agency if the labor agreement remains unresolved. They’ll be allowed to sign one free agent with a first year salary of $4.9 million or more. Additionally, they’ll be allowed to sign any number of free agents they want to first year salaries $3.275 million or less, with an annual salary increase of no more than 30%. And lastly, they’ll be able to sign free agents to replace any unrestricted free agents that they lose, to a salary equal to or less than the departing player signed for with his new team. Sound tough? It would have been worse if the Ravens had beaten Indianapolis and been one of the NFL’s final four.


The bigger question surrounding free agency is about who will be available. Players due to become restricted free agents after their 4th year of service will now have that trigger moved out to 6 years. Presently, the Ravens web site lists 18 players as restricted free agents. Among them though, only Billy Cundiff has 6 years of NFL service, meaning that presumably a lot of potential restricted free agents across the NFL will be locked into negotiating with only their current teams. Can you say massive holdouts? In fact of the 26 total free agents listed on the Ravens roster at present, only 9 may actually find their way to free agency this off-season.


In fact for all of the hoopla about an uncapped season, we could be looking at the weakest free agent class in quite some time because of the additional 2-year restriction.  The great equalizer may be that teams now free of cap restrictions, even if only temporarily could take advantage of that opportunity to rid themselves of large burdensome contracts that they’d otherwise be forced to eat or to suffer large cap hits. I suppose there could be a number of big named, veteran free agents that may find their way unexpectedly to free agency this off season.


For now, at least we still have the draft, and draftniks celebrate, it looks like it could be one of the most important drafts in league history too, as teams may not have a lot of other options when looking to fill their roster needs. And pretty soon, the draft will be all that the league and the Players’ Association will have to distract us from what we’ve all grown to hate about sports; millionaires fighting over money.