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NBA lockout: Thank network television contract for forcing season to be salvaged

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Let’s give it up for the real negotiator in the room between players and owners. Put your hands together for the one who got the deal done, the unheralded, impartial deal-broker behind the scenes that ensured the world of an NBA season.

Network television, you da man!

Because your contract with the league starts on Christmas Day, a 66-game season was salvaged just past 3 a.m. Saturday. You and the NBA calendar helped make Commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, the head of the players’ union, come to their senses.

Now that the first of ABC’s 15 regular season games will debut as scheduled, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are no longer among the millions of unemployed Americans.

Heck, Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t have to hibernate in Wurzburg, Germany, for a winter that never turned “nuclear,” as Stern cryptically warned less than two weeks ago. This Cuban Missile Crisis avoided, owner Mark, all-star Dirk and their Dallas Mavericks family finally get their championship rings.

Dec. 25 in front of their home fans and their oh-so-envious opponents that game: LeBron and the Heat — the guys they beat!

There will be an NBA season; Because they couldn’t afford to flush almost a billion dollars in TV revenue, the Grinches of greed gave it back to us.

Really, TV played a huge role. As a person intimate with the negotiations told me Saturday afternoon: “Some owners basically said, ‘We don’t want a season if it’s going to be moved past Christmas.’ They were right up against that deadline. That TV money was very important.”

The three games played on Dec. 25 are a key component in the annual $930 million the league and its players receive from their broadcast partners (about one-quarter of the $4 billion that would have been lost with a canceled season).

Like most labor stalemates, nobody got everything they wanted, and clearly the owners won. A compromise was struck for two reasons: 1.) The owners siphoned enough revenue back from the players, about $300 million a year, to roughly offset their claimed annual financial losses during brutal economic times. And 2.) Both sides were becoming very fearful they were going to lose the entire season and kill genuine strides in fan interest and increased ratings the past couple of seasons.

Stern, to his credit, got past the anger and rhetoric after the players’ union disbanded last week and took their fight to the courts. He and the owners made a few concessions, but ultimately they got what they wanted: a tougher salary cap that forbids teams from spending so ridiculously over the allotted number, which once ruined any realistic notion of a more competitively balanced league; and a 50-50 split in income with the players, who used to get 57 percent of revenues in the last collective bargaining agreement.

The players, as peeved as some might be over giving back about $3 billion over the life of a 10-year agreement, also got what they want: to play. Oh, and a biweekly paycheck from one of the most financially lucrative professions in the world, one in which the average career lasts just 4.71 years, according to a breakdown of the 2007-08 season. Beyond the stratosphere of Kobe and a slew of 10-year plus veterans, much of the NBA’s workforce has a finite number of years to earn that income.

Losing $2.166 billion in 2011-12 salaries would have been especially hard to stomach.

That’s why Hunter, as many hits as he’s taken, needs to realize he was in trouble before this started. Samuel Gompers would have had little leverage in this negotiation, which was driven less by tight-fisted owners and more by the worst domestic economic situation in nearly a century.

“If I were head of the players, I would have prepared them for the lockout by saying, ‘We’re in the middle of one of the worst financial downturns in American history, so this isn’t a matter of giving back, it’s a matter of how much,’ ” David Falk, the game’s most prominent agent for many years who represented Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing among other stars, said last week. “And if I were head of the league, I would have prepared my owners by saying we need a better revenue-sharing plan and we have to take a hard look at our front-office expenses. Then I would have went to the players and asked them to work with me.

“This was botched from both sides from the beginning, in my opinion. The players needed to become more capitalistic and stop worrying about the middle class. It’s absurd that LeBron James, the best players in the game, have restrictions on their salaries because we need to make it more equitable for players that shouldn’t be making as much. And as far as the owners go, they needed to become more socialistic, start sharing their wealth the way football does for the good of the game.”

Still, Stern saves his reputation, which would have taken a monster hit with a lost season. Even after the players called his bluff in early November— when he uttered his infamous “take it or leave it” words — Stern and the owners still allowed the players a 50-50 split.

After the details are worked out, an NBA season is indeed on.

For what it’s worth, if LeBron doesn’t get a bona fide big man in Miami or someone with Ray Allen’s stroke when he doesn’t want to shoot, he’s not winning it this year either.

Kobe is still Kobe, but with a new coach and system the Lake Show is not getting out of the West. I actually see the Lakers going out in the first round. Book it.

If Dallas gets old fast, the Bulls are in prime position to walk away with the hardware in a truncated season in which young teams that stay together hold many of the cards.

The Wizards? I can say with complete conviction that . . . they’ll be better than Detroit. Like the NBA these days, it’s all about baby steps now.

© The Washington Post Company