If you’re tired of seeing the word lockout associated with your daily sports fix, the reality is you had better get used to it.
To no one’s surprise, the NBA locked out its players when the last Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expired on June 30. If you think the NFL lockout is a real labor dispute, guess again. The NFL grossed $9.3 billion last year and the league admits that all 32 teams were profitable, as they were the year before that and the year before that. In fact, it’s difficult to remember when any NFL team lost “real” money. Rather than alleging losses in their dispute with the players, NFL owners are claiming they aren’t making as much money as they would like to make, or as much as they think they’re entitled to.
The NBA should be so lucky. Commissioner David Stern maintains his league lost $340 million during the 2009-10 season and last year, 23 of 30 teams finished in the red. Those comments may be designed to garner sympathy for the owners in their public relations battle with the players, who average almost $6 million per year. Not surprisingly, the players’ union, which has seen audited financial statements provided by the league, along with a number of media reports, dispute Stern’s numbers.
Determining which NBA clubs are in the red and by exactly how much is mostly a matter of conjecture. However, financials for two teams – the New Orleans Hornets and New Jersey Nets – are available to the public and they suggest that Stern’s characterization of league finances are more than negotiation rhetoric.
The NFL negotiations have already reached a tipping point, with an agreement anticipated in time for the pre-season to begin as scheduled. No surprise there. A cynic might suggest that the league was never in any danger of losing games, despite the saber rattling emanating from both sides. There’s just too much money to lose – and conversely, too much money to be made – for either side to jeopardize any portion of the season, or the pre-season for that matter.
Not so with the NBA. Like the NHL during the 2004-05 lockout that cost the league an entire season, some NBA teams will lose less money if the league goes dark than they would if the games continued to be played under the current CBA. The players contend that the NBA as a whole is profitable, but even if they’re right, a majority of those profits are earned by a handful of clubs, including the Lakers, Bulls and Knicks. Rather than increase revenue sharing, NBA owners would prefer to extract money from the players’ current take in an effort to put more teams in the black.
Another difference between the NFL and the NBA is the men on the hot seat, the respective league commissioners and labor leaders. This is the first labor go ‘round for both NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith. Each man is feeling out the other, not only in an attempt to negotiate a new agreement favorable to his constituents, but also to establish a personal reputation for future negotiations. Not so in the NBA.
Compared to rookies Goodell and Smith, Stern and his counterpart, NBPA leader Billy Hunter, are grizzled veterans who have danced this jig before. Both men were at the helm in 1998, the last time the league faced Armageddon. That dispute resulted in a 200-day lockout. The owners didn’t get all they wanted back then, but even Hunter admits that it took six years for the league and its players to recoup their losses from that lockout.
You would think the personal and financial pain of those losses would have motivated each side to avoid the current lockout, but you’d be wrong. Some observers suggest that the sides are even further apart today than they were 13 years ago. That doesn’t bode well for a quick agreement or for any agreement that will salvage the entire 2011-12 season.
After a season that saw record attendance and record ratings, along with a riveting playoff, the NBA is playing with fire. How badly they get burned remains to be seen. But unlike the NFL, this labor-management dispute is the real deal.
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