NFL players plan to use 'Madden' video game royalty checks in potential labor dispute

ATLANTA – The NFL’s most popular video game is about to help fortify players during the league’s least popular pastime: A labor dispute.

The “Madden” football gaming platform that has played a hand in raising the league’s popularity to new levels is on the verge of bankrolling players during a potential work stoppage following the 2020 season. That’s part of the strategy that will be used by NFL players if team owners lock them out following the expiration of the current collective-bargaining agreement. The league’s players have collectively agreed to save four years of royalty checks from the video game franchise in hopes of using that money to float themselves if the league grinds to a halt in 2021.

The goal of saving those “Madden” checks is to keep players from quickly draining the union’s war chest. The longer players can go without going into the “rainy day” funds, the longer they can hold out against NFL owners. And the longer they can hold out, the more likely they can threaten game cancellations in the 2021 season, a development that would significantly increase the players’ leverage in the next round of CBA negotiations.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers speaks on-stage about ‘Madden 19’ during the Electronic Arts EA Play event last June. (Getty Images)
JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers speaks on-stage about ‘Madden 19’ during the Electronic Arts EA Play event last June. (Getty Images)

In short: Save money as individuals, build a deep union bankroll, dig in and threaten regular-season games cancellations. That’s the hopeful winning formula for the NFLPA in the next round of negotiations. The type of thing that will allow players to push for more of the financial pie, better benefits, better guarantees in contracts – and maybe even significant alterations to the franchise tag.

“Since [the last labor dispute in] 2011, guys have been getting educated on preparation for a potential lockout,” said Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho, who is a vice president on the union’s executive player committee. “That’s eight or nine years ago. Guys have been talking about it. They’ve been prepping for it. We have these things called ‘Madden’ checks. Every year you get your ‘Madden’ check, right? We said, ‘All right, how about this. Instead of having these ‘Madden’ checks come now, let’s wait a little bit. Right? Wait until 2021 to get that check.’ So you have a little of [financial] space, a little bit of room, in case there is a lockout.”

The collective financial value of four years of video game checks for an entire league of players isn’t publicly known, but the union said this week the money is a significant avenue helping players to save money and support a lockout foxhole. As it stands, the union’s potential lockout bankroll is already “hundreds of millions” deep and still growing, according to executive committee president Eric Winston.

The union has indicated it’s aiming at saving as much money as possible to fight the NFL in the next labor battle, but a “goal” financial number hasn’t been publicly discussed. A handful of players who spoke to Yahoo Sports said the union’s “war chest” goal is in excess of $600 million but could be significantly more by 2021.

“We’ve talked with a lot of advisers and other experts about what the [financial] number has to be for the kind of fight that we’re planning, and it’s going to be $600 million or more – maybe a lot more,” one player told Yahoo Sports. “We’re all-in on it. We’ll have that [$600 million in rainy-day union money] for sure. But for all of us, having that video game money in 2021 will be helpful. Just like saving in general is going to help us.”

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According to Winston, the union’s multimillion dollar executive payroll and operations budget has currently been covered from revenue from Player’s Inc., a licensing and merchandise pillar that shares in the profits made from player branding. Having that money cover the union’s budget has allowed the NFLPA to take all of the player’s dues collected each year and pour them directly into the “rainy day” war chest for a potential work stoppage. The same war chest that is hoping (according to players) to exceed $600 million or more by labor negotiations. As it stands, Winston said there have been significant gains already.

“We have hundreds of millions of dollars in the war chest,” Winston said. “That’s good. We have no idea how to predict the future. To say we’re going to do one thing [to prepare] and that’s it, is wrong. To say we’re going to do two things – we’re going to look at a whole host of solutions. Money is one of them but knowledge is another one of them. And other things that we’ve been working on on the side are going to be part of this. Obviously money always plays a part of it. I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t matter. But we’ve built up that war chest now for a long time. We’ve done it the right way.”

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