NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Jeff Pash doesn't feel much like an influencer. "I'm not even sure I'm that influential in my own house," he joked.
Yet Mr. Pash is holding in his hands billions of dollars as the National Football League's general counsel and exec VP-labor, leading negotiations for the NFL -- and, by extension, four TV networks, dozens of corporate sponsors, ad agencies and numerous other businesses associated with the league -- as its collective bargaining agreement with the players expires on March 3.
The possibility that there will be a lockout, and no football in 2011, is very real.
At issue in this contentious new bargaining agreement led by Mr. Pash and his counterpart, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith is everything from how revenue will be divvied up to the controversial move from a 16-game regular season with four preseason games to an 18-game regular season with only two preseason games, and even enhanced steroid testing.
"We certainly accept our share of the responsibility," Mr. Pash said, "but it's a shared responsibility. We can't make a deal alone. We have to work closely with the union; we have to make a shared commitment. We're fortunate to have the tremendous support of our fans and business partners, and we're honored by the role we play in American life. In terms of our obligation, our obligation is work as hard as we can and have a healthy, sustainable business model going forward."
He then paused and said slowly, "Collective bargaining is not easy."
It's not just the $3 billion in ad revenue brought in by networks such as ESPN and Fox carrying NFL games at stake. All four networks are adversely affected for their spring upfront buying season if the NFL and the Players Association can't come to a deal. Shoulder programming is affected. Activations by sponsors are affected. Club promotions and ticket sales are affected. EA Sports is in a holding pattern with its ultra-popular, $30 million revenue-generating NFL video game, "Madden Football." The company can't start designs on the next version of the annual game if there is no season. Even the $5 billion fantasy football business will be affected.
"And nothing can replace the NFL," says Robert Boland, a marketing professor at New York University. "Nobody is going to say, 'Oh, I'll just take those dollars I had earmarked for the NFL and put it into something else.' There is nothing else comparable to the NFL."
Mr. Boland has followed Mr. Pash's career in the league. "I've listened to him speak and paid attention for a 17-, 18-year period. He has been the most aggressive legal lead the NFL has ever had," Mr. Boland said. "Where [former NFL Commissioner] Paul Tagliabue preferred to settle things, Pash has largely preferred to litigate."
Mr. Pash said he would prefer to reach an agreement as soon as possible. "There's no question that as time goes on the agreement becomes more difficult," he said. "It will cost us and it will cost the players. I mean, we've already lost business from a consumer-product standpoint. Uncertainty and delay doesn't serve anyone's interest. Fortunately, our business partners understand labor negotiations. ... We certainly are keeping them advised of where things stand. We're not asking them to take sides."
Mr. Pash said collective bargaining "requires people to make hard choices. It's not glamorous."
But Mr. Boland said the NFL's bargaining pact should be easier to reach an agreement on than, say, the National Basketball Association's deal with the players, which expires in the summer of 2011.
"The NFL labor situation is a very interesting one as compared to basketball, because the NFL makes money," Mr. Boland said. "Bottom line, the NFL makes money. In theory, this negotiation should be easy, because it's a matter of proportioning things. It's pizza for everybody -- it's just a matter of how the slices are divvied up."