The NBA and the NFL became partners in the most ominous way possible Thursday night. Unable to reach a last-minute pact on a new collective bargaining agreement, pro basketball joined its pigskin brethren in initiating a lockout of players, ceasing business operations. Sadly for the NBA, that’s where the similarities between the two leagues end.
As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon points out, football remains highly unlikely to miss meaningful games. The NFL is arguing over $9 billion in profits, whereas the NBA’s business model is, as they say in divorce court, irretrievably broken. The league has staunchly maintained that 22 of its 30 teams are losing money, but the union and Deadspin.com dispute that.
The saddest part of all is that everyone, players included, saw this coming. We’ll see how many of them were savvy enough to stash away at least an entire season’s salary, because many seasoned basketball people are forecasting the doomsday scenario that no games will happen until October 2012. I wouldn’t bet against that, either.
The only certainty is this: However and whenever the league and players’ union navigate the chasm between them, the way the league operates is going to fundamentally change.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News offered a handy summary of the salient issues, but anyone who thinks they can correctly predict the specific resolution to any of them should immediately book a ticket to Vegas.
I’m not here to rank the differences in a precise order of importance, but I’m betting that Bucks owner Herb Kohl will be among the biggest cheerleaders for an equitable division of television revenue (teams currently negotiate their own contracts and keep the money) and a hard salary cap, perhaps with a ceiling of $62 million. This would equal a 33% reduction from current salaries.
Such changes seem necessary if the NBA’s stated desire of having every team able to compete for a championship is genuine. Upcoming bargaining sessions will provide a good litmus test for that quaint platitude.
Will Commissioner David Stern remember that he works for all 30 owners? Will he display the business acumen to persuade reigning winner Mark Cuban and perennial contender Jerry Buss (among others) to essentially subsidize the Sacramentos, Minnesotas, and yes, Milwaukees of the league?
The answers may determine what the league’s new financial structure will ultimately look like. The NBA has a solid history of championship success in small-market, one-sport cities like San Antonio and Portland, but that could be in jeopardy if sanity doesn’t win this battle.
As a former Bucks’ employee, I once overheard Kohl go on a tirade about how Stern was an enemy of small market franchises, rather than the ally he purports to be. Given the commish’s initial proclamation that the league’s proposals will lower in value as the lookout wears on, it’s hard to tell where he stands, though this sounds like the antithesis of negotiating in good faith.
Stern must consider the grim possibility that if he presides over two ugly and protracted work stoppages while doing little to help small-market teams stay competitive, his legacy won’t be that he shepherded his sport from the brink of extinction pre-Magic Johnson and Larry Bird through the Dream Team and massive international growth.
Instead, he might be remembered as the guy who helped kill basketball in places like Milwaukee.