Lengthy NBA lockout looms, with owners and players deeply divided


NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks to reporters after the NBA owners meeting in Dallas Tuesday. (LM Otero/AP)
June 29, 2011

Just weeks after the conclusion of a season that featured riveting story lines and soaring interest, the NBA is about to become the second professional sports league since March to shut down operations because its players and owners can’t agree on how to divide league revenue.

If a deal isn’t reached during an 11th-hour negotiating session Thursday, the NBA is expected to lock players out of team facilities in an attempt to force their hand in collective bargaining negotiations, following the lead of NFL owners who imposed a lockout 15 weeks ago.

But unlike with the NFL’s players and owners, who most experts project will resolve their differences before the start of the upcoming season, the NBA could face a much longer and more painful work stoppage. The two sides remain deeply divided over what percentage of revenue the players should receive, whether teams should have a hard cap on payrolls, and how owners should share their money.

“We may not see movement until it gets close to the end of the year,” said Marc Ganis, president and founder of the Chicago-based sports consulting firm SportsCorp. “Players have been so well paid for so long, they can hold out for longer than most of the other sports. NBA players don’t have the same [financial] issues as NFL players, who are very eager to get back on the field.

“This one is likely to be a long lockout. It could be half a season; it potentially could be a whole season.”

The last NBA lockout, which began in July 1998, did not end until January 1999, and the season was shortened to 50 games.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt and New York Knicks owner James Dolan are scheduled to meet with NBA Players Association chief Billy Hunter, player representative Derek Fisher and two other NBA players Thursday afternoon in New York. The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at midnight. Neither side is expected to make major concessions at the meeting.

“Our expectation is go in and move closer to a deal. And, if not get a deal, at least find out where everybody’s position really is,” said Maurice Evans, vice president of the players’ union and Washington Wizards free agent, who will attend Thursday’s meeting. “It really hasn’t been a lot of posturing. They firmly believe what they want to believe, and I feel like we firmly believe what it is we believe — that the system isn’t broken and if we are going to negotiate, we need to negotiate from the current system.”

Though NBA owners turned over their books to the players, the union has disputed the league’s claims that 22 of its 30 teams are losing money. Owners want a new system that includes a hard cap on team payroll — NBA officials have used the term “flex cap” because it would allow for latitude within a prescribed range — and a larger share of the league’s $4 billion in annual revenue.

Ted Leonsis, who just completed his first season as owner of the Washington Wizards, said Monday his team was among those that lost money last year.

Players, whose average salary is around $5 million, currently get 57 percent of the annual revenue; the owners want to increase to $900 million the amount they get off the top and a 50-50 split of the remainder.

A couple dozen players showed up to a recent negotiating session in New York wearing identical T-shirts that said “Stand” to drive home their solidarity. They contend that a hard salary cap would all but end guaranteed contracts while depositing large sums of money in the pockets of a few stars and leaving everyone else marginalized, fighting one another for jobs.

They maintain that league owners who have spent money irresponsibly on big contracts or new arenas are trying to dump their debt onto players who sell tickets and put fans in seats.

Despite the divide, the negotiations have been marked by uncommon civility. Both sides seem fearful of provoking the public through whining or stone-throwing.

The league registered increases in nearly every measure of interest this season, from television ratings to jersey sales, and both sides seem to understand that a work stoppage of any length would damage that relationship.

“You are going to teach fans to learn to live without the sport you are promoting,” said David Falk, a longtime Washington-based agent. “Anytime I hear that players are losing money and owners are losing money, I wonder how that sounds to a guy who’s out of a job. It probably makes him sick. He has zero sympathy. These are people who can’t even afford to go to games. We need to be more sensitive to that.”

Before the start of the NBA Finals, Silver said in late May that the league already had suffered from the stalled talks.

“Our business partners, both our marketing partners and our licensees who need to plan in the normal course of business, are unable to make their usual media buys,” Silver said. “And so the uncertainty is having a great impact on our business . . . . And while we’ve incurred some damage already, it will move to a new level once we’re in a work stoppage, if that were to occur.”

If there is an NBA lockout, it likely won’t look anything like the one that has brought the NFL to a halt. As soon as talks collapsed, NFL players ended their union so they could file an antitrust lawsuit against the league.

NBA players seem unlikely to leap from the negotiating table to federal court for two reasons: The federal appellate court assigned to the NFL’s case has so far sided with ownership and, according to some legal experts, dissolving the union could threaten the host of guaranteed contracts in the NBA.

Yet if the two sides can’t reach a deal before the collective bargaining agreement expires, it might be some time before they get back to the table.

“Once you go into a lockout, everyone knows the offers get worse, not better,” Stern said recently. “If we can make a deal, we’ll take care of all the issues.”

Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

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