DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co and Detroit Lions executive Bill Ford fields a lot of calls these days from fellow National Football League owners seeking a primer on labor negotiations.
Ford, whose family has owned the Detroit Lions for 46 years, tells each caller the same thing -- dealing with the United Auto Workers union is much different than negotiating with all-star linebackers and quarterbacks, and if you're calling for help now, it's probably too late.
"It's funny that the NFL owners keep asking me about labor and I keep saying, 'Guys, it's a totally different animal,'" Ford told Reuters.
"Most of the NFL owners have no labor background at all," he said, but added that his three decades of experience in negotiating with the UAW was no help.
"The NFL has 32 owners, as opposed to a single corporation," Ford said in an interview in his office at Ford Motor's world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. "The whole thing is so different. And the issues are so different."
The NFL faces a work stoppage if the players and owners cannot agree on a new contract by March 4. The players' union has warned its members to prepare for a possible lockout by the owners.
At risk is the NFL's more than $8 billion in annual revenue, in addition to the possible disruption of the lives of millions of fans who plan their weekends around games and intensify their interest with wagering and fantasy football leagues.
Ford, who said he speaks often to team owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, said he could not predict whether Goodell's push to increase the regular football season to 18 games from the current 16 will succeed.
"It's going to be an interesting debate," said Ford, the Lions' vice chairman. "Obviously, on the one hand, nobody likes the preseason much, with four games. On the other hand, the toll it takes on a player to play 16 games will increase that much more with 18 games. So I don't know where this is going to end. That is one I can't predict."
Earlier this week, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, co-chairman of the owners' negotiating committee, said he was not optimistic that progress was being made toward a new labor pact, just a day after Goodell said in an open letter to fans that a collective bargaining agreement "can and will" be accomplished.
Ford did not offer a forecast on when an agreement might be reached, but he said "that would be awful" if the talks carried on to the point that some of the regular season games had to be canceled, as happened in 1982. Still, he said the NFL is behind schedule if it wants a quick agreement.
He said the success of Ford Motor's negotiations with the UAW depend largely on personal contact, which the owners of the NFL don't have with the players' union.
"It's kind of too late" for the NFL to establish a working relationship with the players off the football field, modeled on what he has with the UAW, Ford said.
"And this is what I've emphasized all along. Bargaining is not done at the bargaining table. Bargaining is done long before, when you sit down informally. You start to know them. They know you."
Bill Ford was born in 1957, the last year the Lions won the NFL championship. His father, William Clay Ford Sr., bought the Lions in 1964.
Ford is optimistic that the Lions, winners of their final four games this season, can turn it around much like Ford Motor. The automaker nearly collapsed in 2006 but has bounced back to lead the industry in key areas.
"I really like the management team," Ford said of the Lions brass. "Martin Mayhew (Lions general manager) has done a terrific job. He's only been there two years. He's had good drafts.
"This season was better than our last, and we ended strong," said Ford. "We all feel good about going into next year."
Reporting by Bernie Woodall; editing by John Wallace