MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian cricket board faces an uphill battle to convince players to jettison a revenue-sharing model that has underpinned the game's development for 20 years, according to former union boss Tim May, who brokered the landmark deal in 1997.
As the inaugural chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA), May played a leading role in landing the model that has made the country's cricketers among the highest paid in the world.
Cricket Australia now says the model, which has long allocated players about a quarter of total revenues, is obsolete.
The board has made an offer that allows only international players to share in surplus revenues, while domestic cricketers will have to settle for fixed amounts.
The offer promises a hefty pay-rise on players' earnings in the current five-year deal, but the players' union has rejected any departure from the sharing model out of hand.
The dispute has become increasingly bitter, and CA chief executive James Sutherland raised the stakes at the weekend by declaring players would not be offered alternative contracts if they failed to reach a deal by the July deadline.
The threat, said former test spinner May, would only stiffen players' resolve.
"With six weeks to go before June 30, I think it's inflammatory -- and makes the players bind together more -- for the CEO to come out and say 'these are the terms that we are offering ... either accept or be unemployed,'" May told Reuters in an interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
"An ultimatum like that would suggest that CA don't want to get back to the negotiating table and negotiate this stuff. I find that puzzling.
"I think the cricketing community would be questioning their desire to get a deal done."
The breakdown in negotiations has raised fears of a possible players' strike for the Ashes starting in November, a hugely anticipated test series against England and a big contributor to CA's coffers.
Sutherland's hard-line stance was criticised by the ACA and prompted players, including opening batsman David Warner, to talk of Australia lacking a team for the home summer.
Both the ACA and CA declined to comment further on the pay dispute when contacted by Reuters.
CA has claimed its offer will address "under-investment" at grass roots level, but May questioned how that concern could not be addressed within a revenue-sharing model.
"It may be that they could pay the players a percentage point less or exclude some revenue flows, and they can still do that and have the benefits of 'variable-ising' expenses," the 55-year-old said.
"The ACA probably aren't moving because they don't understand the rationale of what CA are trying to put before them.
"I don't think it's easy for anyone to understand what CA are talking about unless they disclose various figures and projections."
When May fought the board for the first revenue-share deal, Australia's non-internationals struggled to play full-time on meagre contracts.
State cricketers can now reap A$300,000 a season from domestic competition, including the lucrative and hugely popular Big Bash Twenty20 tournament.
Some local media pundits have criticised the leading players for hinting at an Ashes strike, even as they make millions from the game.
May conceded that industrial action would be damaging for all parties in the eyes of the Australian public but he was adamant that players were not being greedy.
"If I was running a sport, I would want my players to be the best paid in Australia -- because we're all competing for the same athletes," said May, a former head of the global players association FICA.
"The person on the street may say, 'Well, they're earning enough.' But it's about a bigger principle, and the principle is about (players) being an important stakeholder in this game.
"If the worth of what they are doing is increasing, why shouldn't they share in that?"
($1 = 1.3526 Australian dollars)
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