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Score one for NFL

Owners decisively approve a revenue-sharing system

PHOENIX -- Robert Kraft called it an upset.

NFL owners were down to their final chance to reach a revenue-sharing plan yesterday at the league's annual meetings. If they couldn't come to a resolution, commissioner Roger Goodell was prepared to intervene.

"I think everybody thought it would have to be decided by the commissioner, that there was no way we could do this," said Kraft, the Patriots' chairman and CEO.

At the heart of the debate was a list of "qualifiers" that would determine how the revenue would be shared between the large-market and small-market teams. Owners agreed to the revenue-sharing plan by a 30-2 vote, with the Bengals and Jaguars voting against it.

Kraft felt the issue was the most significant development on the first full day of meetings at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore. Had owners not agreed on a plan, and Goodell been forced to make a unilateral decision, the long-term health of the NFL could have been jeopardized, Kraft said. The new revenue-sharing plan extends through 2009.

Kraft believed the issue had splintered ownership when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement heated up between the NFL and the players' union.

"We have to get the room back together as a whole," he said. "I think in this last labor negotiation there was a lot of division from within, and a lot of fracturing, and I think we have to work very hard to bring it together.

"I think there is a feeling from a number of us that we appreciate what a great league we have, and how special it is. We're partners inside. The real enemies are outside the room."

Not everyone inside the room was pleased with the outcome, however. Bengals owner Mike Brown said he voted against the plan because he felt it addressed the issue only in the short term. Meanwhile, Bills owner Ralph Wilson, a vocal opponent against a previous revenue-sharing proposal, agreed that the plan was a "Band-Aid." But he voted for it anyway, calling it the best option for now.

Goodell explained three main qualifiers by saying one was "a performance qualifier based on an average of leaguewide gate [receipts]; the second would be something that, if you had a new stadium, there would be a certain period of time that you would not qualify for revenue sharing; and the third would be if you just sold your franchise, there would be a certain amount of time in which you wouldn't receive revenue sharing."

The Patriots would be one of the teams contributing money to the revenue-sharing pool.

Goodell was pleased that he didn't have to intervene.

"We were fortunate to get an overwhelming vote and we have put that issue to rest for the time being," he said, noting that $430 million will be shared among teams from 2006-09. "I think it was a very good resolution."

From a Patriots perspective, team president Jonathan Kraft played a significant role in helping establish the qualifiers in the plan, according to his father.

"The guidelines he set up of how teams would participate was followed in this setup," said Robert Kraft. "He helped lay the groundwork for this."

In addition to the revenue-sharing issue, Kraft said a good portion of yesterday was spent on the plans for a new stadium in New York. The league also announced its nationally televised games for opening weekend and Thanksgiving (the Patriots aren't in the mix), as the Colts will host the NFL opener Sept. 6 against the Saints.

In addition, Goodell touched on the league's personal conduct policy, saying he will detail changes in the coming weeks that will mean stiffer penalties for players who run into trouble with the law. Goodell initially was expected to announce those plans today, but that has been put on hold.

"I don't like it; I think it's a bad reflection on the National Football League," Goodell said of the recent string of player arrests. "To some extent, it's how we react to it, and making sure people understand this is not what the National Football League represents. I don't believe it represents our players. I think it's a very few number of players who are tainting the league and the other players.

"We intend to try to get to [a revised policy] as quickly as possible and try to remove that [behavior from the league]. I can assure you it will be stronger."

Goodell said the plan will be announced some time before the draft in late April.

As for where Kraft stands on the personal conduct issue, he reflected to 1996, when the Patriots drafted defensive lineman Christian Peter in the fifth round, and cut him shortly thereafter when learning more about his off-field troubles.

"I don't think the general public wants to see overindulged athletes getting a lot of money who don't respect the responsibility and privilege they have," Kraft said. "I don't think major sponsors want to brand with us if we're not diligent in that area. I think we're going to come out of this week with a much stronger player-conduct policy, and I think a majority of the owners are very supportive of that."

The meetings continue through tomorrow afternoon.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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