NOTE: There are very few subjects in which I would consider myself an expert. Basketball (and the NBA in particular) is one of them. By “expert” I mean, of all the people you know in real life, I know more about basketball and the NBA than 99% of them. That’s not meant to be bragging but rather as an illustration of my general lack of a life. I love basketball and I love the NBA and I happen to have a brain built for stats, facts, and meaningless trivia. Hence, “expert.” Having assembled all of this (useless) knowledge, it really bothers me to see so many people blaming this whole mess on the players when in fact I’d say it’s at least 80% the fault of the owners. But it should be noted that while I am presenting several facts in this piece, my opinion as to what all of this means may differ from your own. I just want people to be informed before they start throwing around blame.
On Monday, the NBA Players Association voted to reject the owner’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, a move which will extend the already infuriating lockout and will likely cost us the entire season. In these situations (which have become far too frequent for anyone’s taste), the average fan almost always blames the players. It doesn’t matter where it’s baseball, basketball, football, or whatever else, if games are lost, everyone jumps on the players and accuses them of being greedy. In some cases, those accusers are right: the blame for the 1994 MLB strike should be placed firmly at the feet of the players who chose to prove a point rather than participate in America’s pastime. It took several years and a steroid-infused home run race to get many fans back on board. In many cases, however, the players are at the mercy of power hungry and selfish owners who happen to be much better at playing the public relations game than the players. This is one of those occasions.
First, at no time have the players asked for a single penny more than what they earned last year. (Bear in mind, we’re coming off a season in which the NBA had better ratings than had been experienced in years.) In fact, they’ve been quite willing to accept the need to cut their salaries. Without delving too far into the economics of the situation, the players currently receive 57% of all Basketball Related Income that makes its way into the NBA’s coffers in a given year. Ticket sales, merchandise, and (most importantly) TV money all add up to create the league’s BRI. The players came to the negotiating table and offered to cut that figure to 54%, then came down to 52.5%, and as of the final negotiation session, they’d dropped their requirement to 50%. The last proposal that the players made to Commissioner David Stern would have saved the owners (read: “billionaires”) three billion dollars over the course of the deal. Let that sink in for a minute: these “greedy” players came to the table willing to give up THREE BILLION DOLLARS.
To put that into perspective, imagine that you are a teacher who makes $45,000 a year. When Rick Perry screws your school district over (as he’s prone to doing), your superintendent comes to the teachers and demands all of you to take a 7% pay cut. That’s $3150 less than what you made the year before. How much of an impact would that make on your life? I know, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the wages of a group of millionaires to that of working class professionals but from a purely financial standpoint, this is what we’re talking about. (And hey, I make less than $45,000 a year and if I’m willing to accept this analogy, I would hope others would as well.)
Second, at no time have the owners offered anything of value in exchange for the $3 billion the players have offered to give up. Sure, Stern would have you believe that his constituents have significantly and graciously brought up the terms of their initial offer and indeed they have. However, keep in mind that their initial offer was ABSURD. Instead of the 57-43% BRI split that players currently have or the 50-50 split the two sides have come to currently, the owners started off with a proposal that would shift the BRI to 54-46 in favor of the owners. That’s an 11% shift in favor of the owners. In addition, the initial “hardline” proposal would have made player movement (i.e. trades, free agency, etc.) nearly impossible and cut the opportunity for raises to next to nothing. It was an offensive, inflammatory offer that did nothing but infuriate the players and gives Stern something to point to when he talked about, “how far the owners have come.” Stern has also been incredibly disparaging toward the players, engaging in a PR blitzkrieg that demeans the players in ways that would prompt fines and perhaps suspensions if the tables were turned. He’s been exceptionally threatening in his tone from the very beginning and treated the players as underlings which hasn’t helped this situation in the slightest.
To put this into perspective, imagine that you’re planning on buying a brand new car. You do your research on your vehicle of choice and determine that $33,000 is a fair price for said car and you might even be willing to go as high as $35,000. When you get to the lot, the sticker price on the car is for $38,000, a reasonable number that you believe is within a fair negotiating range. But when the dealer comes to chat you up, he quotes the price of the car at $100,000, which undoubtedly sends you back to your car, furious about the time you’ve just wasted. When that same dealer calls you the next week and offers you the car at $35,000, a figure you would have accepted in the beginning, are you going to accept that deal as if nothing happened? Or, like me, would the principal of the matter infuriate you so that you’d curse the dealer for a conman and refuse to have any further dealings with him?
That’s how the “negotiations” have gone to this point. The owners started with an extremely low-ball offer that everyone knew would NEVER get passed, and then played it off as if they were giving up significant ground in these negotiations. Now that the players have walked away from the table, Stern has accused the players of failing to negotiate in good faith which is, in fact, EXACTLY what the owners have been doing this whole time. The current deal, which the players turned down today, was not rejected over money but over the NBA’s demands regarding player movement. The owners who spend more money (read: “winners”) would be extremely limited in their ability to acquire new talent either in free agency or through trades, making it very difficult (if not impossible) to build a dynasty (Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers, etc.) and forcing many players to stay in bad situations with teams that have no chance of winning (often times a product of crappy ownership).
Let’s go back to the teacher analogy. Again, you make $45,000 a year and your superintendent demands that you take a 7% pay cut. But then he comes back in and declares that not only must you accept the financial hit, you’ll also not be allowed to go out and look for a new job with a district that is willing to pay more or at the very least, provides a quality work environment. To top it all off, the superintendent then threatens you and your coworkers with a MASSIVE and slanderous press campaign that will paint you all in a negative light and kill your chances of finding work elsewhere. That’s what the owners are forcing upon the players right now. “Sign this deal that will seriously cut into your pay, prevent you from seeking out a better job, and make us BILLIONS in the process or else we’ll stop your pay altogether and make you look like greedy thugs in the press.”
Third, this entire lockout is based on the fact that several owners have lost money over the last few years. Forget, for a moment, that these are supposed to be some of the brightest business men the world has to offer. The bigger issues with this sentiment are as follows:
1.) The NBA has refused to turn over all of its books to the players while standing behind the statement that “many” teams are losing money. If this is so cut and dry, why not show the books?
2.) As Deadspin so expertly pointed out, it is EXTREMELY easy to make a team’s finances show a loss when in fact, the owner of said team is making bank through team-related revenue that doesn’t get accounted for in the bottom line.
3.) Stern would like all of us to ignore the fact that the NBA’s current TV deal will expire in four years. When that happens, they will undoubtedly sign a new contract that will bring in billions of dollars to these teams that are currently “losing money.” Do you think the owners will be willing to renegotiate the CBA when that money comes in? No chance.
4.) While on the surface this lockout pits players against owners, the reality is that many of the problems are actually owner-vs.-owner. The big market teams are making more money while the smaller market teams are falling behind. Instead of a negotiating a proper revenue split between themselves, Stern has used the lockout as a convenient fix for a problem that really has nothing to do with the players.
5.) Most importantly, owning a sports franchise isn’t inherently SUPPOSED to be profitable. As Malcolm Gladwell said, sports franchises should be treated as art collecting: a hobby and a long term investment that may or may not pan out, not as a typical business. The best NBA owners (Mark Cuban, Jerry Buss, etc.) don’t concern themselves with the day-to-day and year-to-year bottom and line and yet their teams succeed and generally pull in a ton of revenue.
And that brings us to the biggest issue within this entire, jacked up situation and one that David Stern doesn’t want you to think about: many of the owners he’s brought on over the last decade have no business owning an NBA franchise. Of the 30 teams in the league, at least ten (Charlotte, Phoenix, Los Angeles (Clippers), Sacramento, Memphis, Minnesota, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Toronto) are owned by men who have very little in the way of liquid assets and even less knowledge of how to run a sports team. These owners, plus a few whose teams reside in smaller markets (San Antonio, Portland), represent the group that has pushed for an excessively hard stance towards the players in negotiations and some of whom are on record as saying they’d be happy to miss games because it would save them money.
There is a sentiment among some writers that Stern is at the mercy of his constituents who forced his hand into demanding a deal that the players would never accept. Consider, however, that these owners, many of whom bought their franchise recently, came in at the behest of Stern himself. Robert Sarver (Phoenix), the Maloof Brothers (Sacramento), and their ilk should never have been allowed to purchase franchises in the first place. Whereas the NFL and Major League Baseball are exclusive (almost to a flaw in baseball) in whom they allow into their fraternity of owners, the NBA has basically accepted whoever could come up with the most money on paper, regardless of interest in the game or ability to, you know, actually spend any of that money. This is a STAGGERING misstep that is privately biting Stern in the butt at this moment but one that he’s done a good job of covering over with the average fan. If you’re a fan of the Suns, you should be furious that your franchise was sold to a man who has no money to spend and who cost your team several chances at a championship because he was too cheap to put forth the cash it takes to build a true championship contender. Instead, Stern would have you blame Amare Stoudemire for leaving Phoenix for the greener pastures of the New York Knicks, whose owner has actual money in the bank. Add in the fact that Stern, overly concerned with his global legacy, has over-extended the league as a whole, resulting in a 30 team league that really can only support 26 to 28 teams. If New Orleans, Charlotte, Sacramento, and Memphis were never given franchises, the league would be MUCH healthier.
Stern’s failure to properly control his owners seems even more egregious when you consider all of the crap Donald Sterling has been able to get away with while maintaining his ownership of the LA Clippers. What should be a premier NBA franchise has instead become an absolute wasteland because Sterling has figured out that, at least in LA, he can make big money without striving to put a winner on the floor. (It’s the same formula that Tom Hicks discovered with the Texas Rangers.) More important is Sterling’s reputation as a human which is somehow even worse than his reputation as an owner (widely regarded as the worst in all of sports). Sterling is a proven racist who refuses to rent his properties to African Americans, who has been sued by at least two former employees in the last year, and who refused to pay the insurance premiums for a long-time coach who contracted cancer, prompting players to take up a collection for the man. Add in the fact that Sterling has been known to heckle his own players from the stands (you can’t make this stuff up) and it’s a marvel that ANY free agent has EVER had the stupidity to sign with the Clippers. And yet, Sterling’s ownership has never been challenged by Stern. Is there any business in America that would allow this sort of moral reprehensibility in one of its key members with no ramifications whatsoever? Kind of makes the rants of Mark Cuban seem pretty harmless, doesn’t it?
Now, there is a portion of the fault for this situation that should be attributed to the players, but most of it has to do with the complete lack of leadership the NBAPA has demonstrated. From the beginning, it has seemed as if chief negotiator Billy Hunter hasn’t had a clear path to follow and the union’s president, Derek Fisher, is unquestionably in over his head. Today’s move to decertify the union should have been made in July when the NBA first imposed the lockout. Had it been done then, the NBAPA would have some had some leverage in their negotiations early on when it mattered. At this point, we’ll be lucky if the courts rule on whether or not the decertification will be allowed before February, meaning there is almost no chance of a season taking place. If Hunter makes this move in the summer (which many players were in favor of), we’re probably done with this whole thing by now. This is a tremendous mistake that should (and probably will) result in Hunter losing his job.
Likewise, Fisher, by all accounts a nice guy who’s carved out a solid career, didn’t have the requisite credibility to make firm decisions for the players and neither did he have the respect of Stern and the owners. This is a major issue within the NBAPA and it doesn’t just stop at Fisher. The NBAPA Executive Committee includes guys like James Jones, Roger Mason, Jr., and Keyon Dooling. If you’ve never heard any of those names, you’re not in the minority. Leadership with the NBAPA used to be a desirable post but as AdrianWojnarowski reported, recently it’s become almost a form of punishment for young players and journeyman veterans. What this group really needed was a killer in the room, a guy who Stern wouldn’t be so quick to cross and demean. Essentially, they needed Kobe Bryant. (Bryant is the Lakers' team representative but is not on the executive committee.) If Bryant is the NBAPA’s president, I think we’re potentially looking at a much different outcome. In addition, there's more than a little speculation out there that if the decision of whether or not to accept this deal was put to a vote of all players rather than only the 30 representatives, they might have accepted. But Fisher, Hunter, and the rest of the committee have struggled from the get go in terms of understanding the desires of their constituents. That lack of leadership is on the players.
At the end of the day, simply put, this whole thing sucks. Coming off of a banner year, the owner’s lockout combined with the player’s incredible lack of leadership and negotiating skill have combined to do what could be irreparable harm to the league’s brand and left a billion fans worldwide with nothing to look forward to. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that this lockout went into effect July 1st and yet almost no serious negotiations were conducted until October. This shortsightedness should result in the loss of jobs for both Stern and Hunter and definitely WILL damage Stern’s enduring legacy. A league that never missed a game due to lockout or strike before 1998 is now likely to lose the entire season, making Stern responsible for the loss of 112 games during his run as commissioner. But before you start blaming the players for their greed, consider applying that same sentiment to the billionaire owners who would rather lose games and fire employees than pay their players (you know, the people we go to games in order to see) their cut of the profits.