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What Is Collective Bargaining in Professional Sports?

The potential for lockouts or strikes (and ensuing revenue loss) highlights the important role collective bargaining plays in professional sports. The ramifications for failed collective bargaining negotiations are high for players, team owners and fans. When unions and management fail to agree on a collective bargaining agreement, owners could unilaterally force players from their place of work (lockout) or players could refuse to work (strike).

A Look at Collective Bargaining Agreements and Labor Unions

The first unions formed in Europe in the 18th century to improve working conditions and soon spread to the United States. Early professional sports team unions formed half a century ago, long before the inception of the lucrative contracts professional athletes enjoy today, and those early efforts focused on establishing pension plans and raising wages. Today, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) detail a number of items including health benefits, safety standards, salary structures, injury grievance policies and salary caps, among others. CBAs are renegotiated every several years.

Today, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) and NBA Players Association (NBAPA) are just a few of the unions that represent the collective interests of professional athletes and referees.

The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Professional Sports

Over the past few decades, the NFL, NBA and NHL experienced a lockout or strike following failed negotiations between unions and team owners. The 2011 NFL lockout threatened the 2011-12 season. Among the issues that team players and owners disagreed on were the addition of two regular season games, restructuring of NFL revenue, health benefits, free agency guidelines and salary caps. From early March to late July of that year, negotiators from both sides worked toward a compromise. But due to the ongoing lockout, players were restricted from using team facilities, seeing team doctors and communicating with coaches. Both sides walked away with victories, including higher benefits for retired players. Owners gained a more equitable revenue sharing system.

The NBA also experienced a lockout in 2011, following demands by team owners that the players’ share of revenue be lowered and a stricter salary cap be implemented. The NHL lost an entire season due to collective bargaining disagreements in 2004. During those tense negotiations, labor relations specialists worked to find common ground between the two sides. Labor negotiation specialists blend human resources and sports administration acumen to interpret labor law and recommend potential areas of compromise.

“When negotiations stall and seasons hang in the balance, the fans are forced to sit and wait,” an article in Investopedia noted. “When it comes to the effectiveness of sports labor unions, who are the winners and losers depends on which side of the table you’re sitting.”

Trends Shaping Future Contract Negotiations

A recent article by Front Office Sports described the importance of understanding collective bargaining for sports administrators. “When leagues do not function, every aspect of every team and league office shuts down: placing every sports professional in that sport at a standstill,” the article notes.

Several bargaining agreements are set to expire within the next several years, including those of the NFL (2021), MLB (2021), NHL (2022) and Women’s National Basketball Association (2022). Ongoing litigation, intellectual property disputes and league rules may shape future negotiations, the article said. On the league rules front, current NBA rules requiring NBA prospects to attend college for one year or have professional basketball experience before being declared for the NBA could be on the chopping block. Concussions remain a contentious issue following the $1 billion settlement on the part of the NFL to cover the medical care of NFL players who claim to have suffered brain damage as a result of their work on the field.

Front Office Sports predicts that the NFL will be seeing more concussion cases.

In the ongoing battle between players and owners for contractual claims over revenue, growing viewership and earnings continues to raise the stakes. Americans spent $56 billion on sporting events in 2017, according to CNBC. Contractual disputes are nothing new to professional sports, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

St. Thomas University’s online Master of Business Administration in Sports Administration includes a course on the legal aspects of sports administration. The seven-week class provides students with a background on American legal proceedings and how those laws are applied to professional sports. Through the online course, STU faculty cover topics that sports administrators may face, ranging from contracts and due process to collective bargaining and arbitration.

Any time sports unions enter negotiations with owners, potential lost time, money and resources are on the line. The online MBA in sports administration from STU equips graduates with the skills to find common ground between athletes and owners so that contractual disputes can be settled quickly.

Learn more about the STU online MBA with a concentration in Sports


Front Office Sports: Weekly Legal Brief: Collective Bargaining, Lockouts, and Strikes

Investopedia: Pro Sports Unions: Do They Help Or Hurt?

CNBC: Americans Spend $56 Billion on Sporting Events

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