Eyeing Expanding Revenue, N.F.L. Players Tap a Business Executive to Lead Their Union

After a 16-month search, the N.F.L. Players Association chose Lloyd Howell Jr. as its new executive director. He’ll be the fourth since the league’s 1970 merger and replace DeMaurice Smith.

The union’s player representatives selected Howell, most recently the chief financial officer at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, after a deliberately opaque process for filling one of the most powerful jobs in sports.

Like his predecessor, Howell enters the job with no experience in labor relations or professional sports. While Smith was a seasoned lawyer before joining the union, Howell has spent more than three decades working as a management consultant, where he said one his biggest assets was his ability to bring groups to consensus.

“Over the course of my career, not everyone agrees, not everyone is on the same page,” Howell said in his introductory news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I’m really an agent of service for the players and I’m really looking forward to getting to know the players, getting to know what their interests are, what their priorities are, and building a stronger team.”

Howell takes over a union that is operating in a period of relative labor peace, but has sought to push N.F.L. team owners on safety issues, disciplinary procedures and expanded benefits for retired players. He declined to provide specific thoughts on those priorities.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the union does not expire for seven more seasons, and both the team owners and the players are growing wealthier thanks to media contracts that are worth more than $100 billion.

Smith led the union for 14 years, but his leadership was severely tested during collective bargaining negotiations in 2019 and 2020, a contentious process that led to the addition of a 17th game to the N.F.L.’s regular season starting in 2021. Under the current C.B.A., the players’ share of league revenue rose to between 48 and 48.5 percent, an amount lower than their split in the 2006 agreement. The value of N.F.L. teams has also grown at a much faster rate than player salaries.

“De demonstrated a level of strategic thinking you would want a lawyer to have,” said Brad Sohn, who has sued the N.F.L. on behalf of players and also sought the executive director job. “I might not have always agreed with his vision, but he was clearly a highly trained and skilled litigator who brought that to the table.”

Seeking a new term in 2021, Smith survived what amounted to a no-confidence vote to retain the executive director job. That prompted the search for his replacement.

It is unclear whether Howell will lead the union in a different direction. He worked for 34 years at Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest management consultancies, before retiring last year as the firm’s chief financial officer.

Howell, who holds an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. from Harvard, initially joined Booz Allen Hamilton to support Department of Defense programs. He later worked at Goldman Sachs before returning to the firm in 1995.

By tapping an executive with a deep business background rather than a former player or a labor leader, the union’s leadership signaled its interest in maximizing revenue opportunities. As the business of the N.F.L. has grown increasingly complex, expanding into sports betting and emerging media platforms, the union’s for-profit marketing arm has tried to cash in on the players’ images and likenesses.

“I’m not surprised that this selection would be so out of the box,” said Robert Boland, a former player agent who teaches sports law at Seton Hall University. “Looking at what are the challenges for a labor union that signed a 10-year C.B.A. and has been looking for revenues from the game, maybe that’s the hook.”

The union’s board kept the search confidential, limiting the vetting process to the N.F.L.P.A.’s 11-member executive committee, made up of current and former players. The union’s player representatives learned the names of the finalists in recent days before voting on Wednesday and just 48 out of 128 voted.

Several former players, including Matt Schaub and the Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow Sr., said they had applied and were rejected months ago by the search committee.

J.C. Tretter, president of the N.F.L.P.A., left, said the union kept the search for a new executive director confidential in order to draw top candidates to replace DeMaurice Smith, right.Credit…Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

In a news conference Wednesday, J.C. Tretter, the president of the union, said the player representatives voted unanimously to have the executive committee run the search in private as a reaction to prior elections, when the leaked names of candidates kept top prospects from applying for the job and complicated the committee’s search.

“I am proud that our player leadership ran a professional, confidential search for the players, by the players,” Tretter said. “I know Lloyd will lead our union well into the future.”

This search was a stark contrast to Smith’s first election to the executive director role in 2009, a period of acute turmoil for the union. Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman who was the union’s executive director for a quarter century, died of pancreatic cancer in August 2008 days after being diagnosed. In May 2008, team owners had opted out of a two-year-old labor deal, which they felt gave the players too big a share of league revenue.

Three N.F.L. insiders, including Troy Vincent, who had been the union’s president, publicly lobbied to fill Upshaw’s seat before Smith was elected in March 2009.

Smith, a former prosecutor and litigator in Washington, D.C., had to mobilize a negotiating team before the expiration of the agreement in March 2011.

When the two sides failed to reach a deal before the deadline, the owners locked out the players. The union responded by decertifying and filing an antitrust lawsuit against the league, a gambit that failed in court.

Just before training camp started, the two sides agreed to a new deal that reduced the players’ share of revenue by several percentage points. The agreement was for 10 years, not the usual five, which gave the owners the stability they wanted to negotiate similarly long-term television contracts.

In 2019, the owners again pushed for an 18-game schedule, which Smith and high-profile players publicly opposed. Yet weeks before the deal was set to expire, Smith revealed proposals that included extending the regular season by one more game, to 17, in return for the players getting another percentage point of the league’s shared revenue. Many players were angered by what they perceived to be an about face and the deal was ratified by just 60 votes.

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