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Do The NBA Owners and Players Really Realize They’re Playing With Fire? Strikes Don’t Always End Well In Sports

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To the surprise of nobody that was paying attention, the NBA remains at a negotiations impasse and we’re about to get another block of games cancelled.  I just wonder if the owners and players really comprehend the size of the fire they’re playing with.

The NFL managed to get its act together before any games were cancelled, so the NBA learned nothing about fan disgust from that, and I suspect the NFL losing games would have gotten some extreme reactions.  No, the NBA seems to be looking at the NHL strike for the model of “what happens to a sport if you have a strike.”  And with a number of NHL owners buying into the NBA in recent years that makes a certain amount of sense.

The thing is, hockey was in a very different place before and after their strike.  The NBA is much more commercially built-out sport.  When the NHL strike happened, hockey did not have a national television broadcast schedule.  As soon as the strike ended, they signed up with Versus and the TV ball started rolling.  While the strike may have royally ticked off a number of hockey fans, getting some TV exposure is a great way to mitigate the situation and get some new fans.  (It also didn’t hurt the NHL, that one of the most despised owners in recent memory, Dollar Bill Wirtz, died a couple years after the strike and his son was able to restore the Blackhawks to relevancy almost immediately.  It helps the league when a city the size of Chicago suddenly remembers they have a hockey team, and they were certainly staying away from Dollar Bill’s product.)

The NBA has multiple broadcast deals and their own channel (currently in re-runs).  There aren’t any wide audiences who haven’t been exposed to basketball that you can magically pick up after a strike.  No, this has the potential to be more like the baseball strike.  The owners and players are going to yell a lot in public and the fans are going to start simmering.  We’ll see if they simmer long enough for the hate to boil over.  Baseball attendance suffered noticeably from the strike.  It was not unusual to hear from fans who didn’t go to a game again for 5 years.

This is the kind of fire the NBA is playing with.

And neither side seems to realize there’s plenty of blame for the fans to heap on both sides.

The owners can get some blame for wanting little more than salary reductions.

Actually, I’m a big proponent of a hard cap, level playing field and a more uniform revenue sharing program that the current one.  Yes, the luxury tax is a form of revenue sharing.  It’s also something that incentivizes a small market team not to spend top dollar to compete.  If you’re in a small market and income isn’t as easy to come by, it’s awfully easy to pull back on free agent spending and collect your tax checks from the Knicks and Lakers.  (Or if you just have a cheap owner looking for a quick bonus.)  The luxury tax helps create an unlevel playing field and that just isn’t good for a sport.

The thing is, hard cap aside, do you really need to have revenue sharing between the teams come up as part of the player negotiations?  It’s messy.

Then you have the players, screaming about a hard salary cap the way politicians rail against term limits.  While you don’t know how a hard cap would play out in practice, you suspect the superstars and their agents are the ones with the most to lose on that one and you wonder how much advising the agents are doing.  I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the amount of power wielded by a handful of NBA agents and I’m curious how involved they are with the player side.  The players seem to care mainly about the money and there’s a finite amount of time fans are going to care about that.

If this process drags on for much longer, it’s going to cease to be an issue of players vs. owners with sides to be taken.  It will be perceived as a bunch of rich people in-fighting and depriving the fan of his sport.  Nobody is thinking in terms of that.  Well, maybe Stern has it in the back of his mind.  This is not how he wants to go out, but he is the employee of the owners and one of the last people I’d ever want to get into a contest of wills with.

We’re almost to the point where the season would have started and the point at which both parties will start missing some income.  This is not something that will be solved until both parties feel a little pain.

There are only two questions I have at this point:

*Will Stern turn game cancellations into a psychological game and keep doling out 2-week blocks of cancelled games or will he opt for larger chunks?

*How long will it take before one side decides to give up on the season?  It isn’t just the owners who can cancel the season.  If they players have the will power, they can walk away from the table.  If they get offered an ultimatum to settle by a certain date or no season, they might find that will power, too.

Let’s be honest here.  If the owners are looking at this like a siege and figuring they can, metaphorically speaking, starve the players out as they start to miss their paychecks, history says they’re probably right.  The question is how much the owners are out in employee salaries and public goodwill while they’re laying siege or if the players can find other paying gigs.

And if the season is lost… well, I guess we’ll find out how forgiving the fans are if and when that happens.  At that point, the fans might be mad enough to welcome an entirely new basketball league.

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1 Comment

  1. What is becoming increasingly lost on the players and owners is the fact that no one is truly noticing. If the entire season is cancelled, will there be a backlash? It is extremely doubtful. I will miss the Blake Griffin highlights every night, but how many people in America really know who Blake Griffin is?
    The other thought is that this dispute is being raged over the men with the most money. My prediction is that the lower tier players will be the first to cave. Then the entire uninon will collapse under its own weight after it loses its footing. There will be NBA games this year, but the scars left will be noticeable.

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