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Contract negotiations still proceeding slowly, union says

The players' union is making slow progress toward a solution to its first major disagreement with the NFL in the last decade.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ The players' union is making slow progress toward a solution to its first major disagreement with the NFL in the last decade.

With two seasons left before the salary cap disappears, NFL Players' Union president Gene Upshaw says big changes are needed in the way the league distributes money to the players.

``I warned the players last year that this would be the most difficult negotiation we have had since the current agreement in 1993,'' Upshaw said Thursday at the Super Bowl, during his annual state-of-the-union address.

At issue is the union's desire to convince teams that make the most money on private, local revenue luxury boxes, naming rights, local TV deals and the like to contribute more to the pool of player salaries.

The current collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2008, but a deal must be struck a year before, when the salary-cap clause in the contract disappears.

Though that seems a ways off, Upshaw departed from his normally conciliatory tone and spoke with a sense of urgency.

``The price of poker gets higher'' the longer the negotiations go nowhere, he said.

Owners from lower revenue teams including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Indianapolis have been pushing the league to share the local revenue money the way it does with television rights fees, which provide the biggest slice of the shared-revenues income.

Under the current contract, shared revenues determine the salary cap, which the union estimated will be $85.5 million next season, up $5 million from 2004.

Upshaw said the top eight money-making teams were the most adamant against including the private revenue, which they often use as cash up front to pay signing bonuses that the poorer teams can't afford.

He acknowledged that the team with the most income, Washington, spends the most on players, and that No. 3 Houston spends a lot on them, too. But he said No. 2 Dallas is ranked in the 20s among 32 clubs in player salaries; he didn't identify the team at his news conference, but privately acknowledged later that it was the Cowboys.

Despite his assertion the union is making progress, Upshaw wouldn't say how many teams had come around to his position. Instead, he said many are waiting for the league to complete the final part of the new television contract, which includes the highest rights fees for the Sunday and Monday night packages.

``I'm confident the league will do very well there,'' Upshaw said.

Last November, the NFL renegotiated its deals with Fox for the NFC and CBS for the AFC. Fox will pay $4.3 billion for six years, while CBS pays $3.7 billion.

Negotiations to extend the labor contract began last April and there have been periodic meetings since, with progress in other areas. Upshaw said he will meet again in the next two weeks with Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president for labor relations.

I think we're making progress and I'm confident we'll reach agreement,'' Upshaw said.But if we're here at this time next year without an agreement, we're only a year away from an uncapped year. And once we lose the cap, it will never come back.''

The NFL has long had the most stable labor situation among all major sports; its last strike was in 1987.

Revenue sharing has helped make the league what it is _ designed for parity, where all teams have a chance because they spend about the same under free-agency and salary cap rules.

But Upshaw and the union sense an imbalance settling in due to the wave of new stadiums, with their expensive luxury boxes and multimillion dollar naming-rights deals.

Upshaw said some teams are coming around to his view on this.

But the high-revenue teams are still balking,'' he said.I understand it, but time is getting shorter.''

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