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How much money did NFL players lose under the current CBA?

Carolina Panthers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Larry French/Getty Images

As fans sit anxiously awaiting the start of the annual NFL free agency signing period that starts on Wednesday, March 13 at 4 pm New York time, we can discuss the big name players who will sign contracts in the tens of millions of dollars. The numbers will largely be inflated, and much of the money will never be earned by the players signing the deals because of the non-guaranteed nature of NFL contracts.

However, as we sit and observe how a rising cap over the past decade has pushed the salary cap to $188M and player salaries to all time highs, let’s not overlook the fact that this is simply a matter of a rising tide lifting all boats and that the players still lost at the negotiating table in 2011. There has been a lot of discussion back and forth about which side won and which side did not, but buried in an article by Joel Corry with suggestions for how to improve the next CBA was a little tidbit about the current revenue sharing agreement.

And it does not take a lot of digging into those numbers in order to determine which side came out ahead in the last round of negotiations. Fans can sit and argue that the salary cap has increased greatly, and that the players got a great deal in 2011 because the cap has seen a more than 50% increase over the past few seasons, however, that ignores the sheer enormity of the growth of both the salary cap and league revenue on a whole.

Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the split of revenues between the owners and players was a hard and fast 50/50 under the old CBA and an equally rigid 47/53 under the current agreement. Based on those numbers, and combined with the fact that we know exactly what league-wide revenue numbers were for past seasons, we can then begin to make ballpark approximations of how much money the players gave in the last round of negotiations.

So, without beating around the bush, let’s jump right into the numbers and see what three percent of NFL revenues since 2011 looks like.

NFL revenue by league year

League Year Revenue 3% of Revenue
League Year Revenue 3% of Revenue
2011 $8,820,000,000 $264,600,000
2012 $9,170,000,000 $275,100,000
2013 $9,580,000,000 $287,400,000
2014 $11,090,000,000 $332,700,000
2015 $12,160,000,000 $364,800,000
2016 $13,160,000,000 $394,800,000
2017 $13,680,000,000 $410,400,000
2018** $14,200,000,000 $426,000,000
Total $91,860,000,000 $2,755,800,000
**Estimate as the 2018 league year is not officially over

How exactly did that happen? Well, the lead negotiator for the NFLPA who had been heading negotiations between the NFL and the players union for decades, Gene Upshaw, passed away unexpectedly in 2008. Upshaw had played in the NFL for more than a decade starting in the 1960s, and upon retiring took an active role in the union working to improve pay and benefits for players. He was hard-nosed, tenacious, and not afraid of a fight with the league. He was involved in the litigation that brought about free agency, the work stoppages in the 1980s and he came to the negotiating table with a take-no-prisoners approach.

After Upshaw’s unexpected passing, the NFLPA appointed DeMaurice Smith to be the Executive Director of the NFLPA. Smith came in with an impressive resume that included a J.D. from the University of Virginia, as well as stints at major legal firms such as Patton Boggs and Latham & Watkins. In addition, Smith had spent nearly a decade with the Department of Justice. His connections were deep, his influence great, and his ability to help sides come together to reach a compromise was widely regarded as one of his greatest skills.

Unfortunately for NFL players, the ability to reach a compromise is a tit for tat. NFL owners have spent their entire professional careers negotiating deals, and when they had the opportunity to test out the new Executive Director of the union, they certainly did so. Thus, in working to help the two sides reach a compromise on avoiding a work stoppage that would have impacted the 2011 regular season, the union gave up that three percent of revenues in the course of negotiations.

While three percent may not seem like a big number in and of itself, three percent of a colossal number is a very large number. Specifically, $2.755B so far.

Thus, when I say that the players lost at the negotiating table in 2011, I mean they got destroyed, obliterated and annihilated. Through the first eight years of the CBA the players have given up enough money to have purchased the majority of NFL franchises. When Forbes valued all 32 NFL franchises in the fall of 2018, there were 23 valued at less than the $2.755B the players gave up in 2011. That includes the Seattle Seahawks, which Forbes assigned a value of $2.58B.

Add in the fact that there are still two more seasons left on the current CBA, and by the time the 2011 CBA will have run its course, the players will have given up somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5B over the course of the decade. That works out to about $350M per season as a whole, or alternatively, that amount represents more than $10M per team per season.

Or, enough that a team could retain a key slot receiver, like Golden Tate, for example.