Judge Sends NFL Labor Battle to Mediation, Again

A federal judge has ordered NFL owners and their locked-out players to return to the bargaining table, scheduling both parties to resume talks under the auspices of a court-appointed mediator.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled that league owners and the player reps are to re-open talks on Thursday in Minneapolis. Chief Magistrate Arthur Boylan will preside over the mediation; before both sides are reunited, the veteran judge will meet separately with players and owners in his chambers.

While Nelson has the power to order the combatants back into room together, she cannot force them to come to an agreement. In other words, the mediation is non-binding.

Both sides have been ordered to keep the proceedings confidential. With the conversation set to begin anew after a month of silence, Nelson will mull over the players’ request for a preliminary injunction against the lockout.

In a three-page order handed down Monday, the judge said the injunction “remains under advisement,” adding that a decision would be made “in due course.” Should Nelson grant the players’ request to call a halt to the lockout, the owners would almost certainly appeal the ruling in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

That may turn out to be the worst-case scenario for fans, as the court may not hear an appeal until late June.

The NFL and the player representatives tried mediation earlier this year, hashing out their disagreements for 17 days in Washington, under the watch of federal mediator George Cohen. When those talks ended without a resolution, the collective bargaining agreement expired.

Concurrent with the expiration of the CBA, the former NFL Players Association decertified on March 11. This in turn allowed players to file their class-action lawsuit against the league.

Weighing in on the NFL lockout, media buyers have said that the loss of football GRPs could have a jarring impact on the 2011-12 upfront.

In a worst-case scenario, the loss of the NFL will wipe as much as $3 billion in ad revenue off the books at CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN.

In the event of a season-long no-show, the broadcasters would stand to lose between 25-30 percent of their fourth quarter 18-49 age group ratings points. ESPN could face an even greater deficiency; per MagnaGlobal analysis, Bristol could lose as much as 54 percent of its nightly 18-49 deliveries in the absence of Monday Night Football.

Buyers will look to mix and match in order to make up for those vanished GRPs, as it is frankly impossible to make a wholesale swap. “We’ve had contingency plans in place with our clients for 12 to 18 months now. The thing is, you just can’t replace the NFL audience one-for-one,” said Shane Ankeney, a managing director at Initiative US. “There may be a fair amount of programs with a male skew out there, but certainly nothing that can stand alone. So we’ll be looking at a combination of other opportunities.”