After a relatively quiet off-season, N.F.L. players and coaches are back in training camp.
The league’s owners and players union, though, have been at work for most of the summer, holding several rounds of talks about renewing their 10-year labor agreement, which is due to expire in March 2021. The N.F.L., though, wants to forge a new agreement sooner so it can focus on negotiations with television networks and technology companies for the rights to broadcast games.
The two sides will return to the bargaining table this week in Chicago at what is likely to be a pivotal moment in the negotiations. The handful of meetings thus far have largely been an exchange of ideas as each side tried to determine the other’s priorities. Those include issues like off-season practices and medical care for retired players.
This week, the owners and union are expected to start discussing the single biggest issue of any potential labor deal: how to share the league’s roughly $14 billion in annual revenue.
In the current collective bargaining agreement, players get roughly 47 percent of the league’s revenue. It is widely expected that the percentage could rise to as much as 50 percent in a new deal, which would put football players closer in line with their brethren in the N.B.A..
“The big pie-splitting is already done,” said one owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did others involved in the negotiations because the owner was not authorized to publicly discuss the bargaining. “The goal is how to grow the pie.”
For the owners, the easiest solution to pay for giving the players an extra three percentage points of revenue is to expand the regular season. A longer season would help the N.F.L. charge more for media rights and sponsorships, and sell more tickets, hot dogs and beer. A chunk of that money would be shared with players.
Currently, teams play four games in the preseason and 16 in the regular season. One or two preseason games, which are not popular with players or fans, might be dropped so the regular season could expand to as many as 18 games. A second bye week would be added, and the playoffs could grow to include two more teams. The Super Bowl would be pushed to later in February.
The players rejected a similar proposal for a longer regular season during the lead-up to the current agreement. The owners have yet to make a formal proposal this time, but the players remain adamantly opposed, saying that extending the season will lead to more injuries and shorter careers.
“I don’t see an 18-game schedule — under any circumstance — being in the best interest of our players,” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association, told ESPN this month. “If somebody wants to make an 18-game proposal, we’ll look at it. I haven’t seen anything that makes me think it would be good for the players.”
Some owners say that concerns over player health can be alleviated by expanding rosters to, say, 57 from the current 53, a move that would also increase the number of dues-paying union members.
Several prominent players, though, are more interested in expanding medical benefits for retired players, possibly including lifetime care.
“I know a big concern for guys is medical care for lifetime,” Malcolm Jenkins, a union representative for the Philadelphia Eagles, said on “The Rich Eisen Show.” “We put our bodies on the line. Guys are dealing with some serious medical issues once they leave the game.”
Players receive five years of medical insurance immediately after they retire, but only if they have spent at least three seasons in the league.
Improved retiree medical benefits, though, are unlikely to substantially soften the union’s stance on a longer regular season.
“It would have to be a ‘Godfather offer’ to make us move,” said a union official who is not directly involved in negotiations. “And what’s the offer we can’t refuse? That’s up to our guys.”
Raising the percentage of total revenue devoted to salaries would be the most obvious way to compensate the players for agreeing to an expanded schedule, but there are several other significant concessions the owners could make, whether the schedule expands.
Minimum salaries could be increased. Rosters could be expanded. The number of years needed to become a free agent could be lowered. The terms of the franchise tag — which lets teams hold on to a player for a year or two after he is eligible for free agency — could be changed. Expanded pensions are another option. Many players also want the league to relax its prohibition on the use of marijuana. N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s near total control of player discipline also is not popular.
Negotiators on both sides have said they are encouraged by the tone of the meetings, particularly compared with eight years ago, when the owners essentially demanded roughly $1 billion in givebacks and locked out the players for four and a half months, delaying the start of training camps. The union is taking no chances this time. This month, it sent a letter to players’ advisers encouraging them to tell their clients to save additional money in case of a work stoppage.
Indeed, the current bonhomie could change once there are concrete proposals to hash out.
“The players are not going to get something for nothing,” an owner said.