NBA lockout officially begins, season could be in jeopardy
On June 30, teams were busy holding free agent camps, speaking to other executives about trades, and deciding whether to exercise player options for the 2011-12 season.
On July 1, it all went quiet.
The NBA officially locked out its players at 12:01 EST for the first time since 1998. During the lockout, players will not receive their salaries or be able to use team facilities for any purpose; teams will not be able to negotiate, sign or trade player contracts nor will they be permitted to conduct or facilitate any summer camps, exhibitions, practices, workouts, coaching sessions, or team meetings. Furthermore, players are barred from having any contact with team staff for any reason and vice versa (this includes family members on either side), and teams cannot use images or references to specific players for advertising or marketing purposes (which include ticket sales and team Web sites).
The NBA, for one, is taking a hard-line stance on these rules. As reported by Ric Bucher on his Twitter account, any team having contact with a player during the lockout will receive a $1 million fine.
The lockout comes on the heels of several unproductive labor meetings between the Players Association and league executives. The players want to keep the current collective bargaining agreement largely in place while the owners want to change a system they characterize as flawed.
“The expiring collective bargaining agreement created a broken system that produced huge financial losses for our teams,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver. “We need a sustainable business model that allows all 30 teams to be able to compete for a championship, fairly compensates our players, and provides teams, if well-managed, with an opportunity to be profitable.”
With this in mind, the owners have proposed an agreement that scales back revenue shares players receive. More contentiously, however, the owners have proposed significant changes to player salaries — a hard cap, elimination of exceptions, lower maximum contracts, and no guaranteed contracts.
The Players Association has balked at these demands, calling them non-starters. The union contends that teams can be made profitable through an increase in revenue sharing and disputes the nearly $300 million in losses the NBA said its teams experienced last season. This issue remains murky since teams have thus far refused to open their books for further scrutiny in negotiations.
The last proposal put forward by the Players Association called for $600 million in givebacks to owners over a six-year agreement. That proposal was rejected by the owners.
Now with the NBA shut down, the questions that have lingered for months will finally start to be answered. The NBA has already cancelled the Vegas Summer League, rookies and free agents cannot sign contracts, and the issue of missing regular-season games becomes more real. Will there be basketball come October? As it stands, that answer is no. The players vehemently proclaim that they will not cave to owners’ demands. The owners, likewise, appear dead-set on implementing a hard-cap system. One side will have to budge for anything to happen, but both sides seem pretty dug in. This labor dispute has the look of the dispute that claimed the 2004-05 NHL season, and ultimately led to a major overhaul of the NHL system.
The players’ union could also decertify, which would then allow the players to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA that would force the league to end its lockout. However, that path did not play out very well for the NFL players’ union earlier this year during their own lockout. That option is also a last resort for the NBA Players Association, as taking that route would almost assuredly lead to a cancellation of the 2011-12 season as the case and subsequent appeals worked their way through the court system. Both sides would rather continue negotiating and try to come to an agreement sooner than later, hopefully allowing a season to be played — albeit a possibly shortened one.
Key dates in this process will start to come around September, when a lack of progress could restrict time for training camps and preseason games. By November, players will start missing checks. Pressure from either one of these events could fracture the resolve of the owners or players. However, if neither budges as these events occur, then it will spell bad news for the upcoming season. During the last NBA lockout, which resulted in a shortened 50-game season, there was no agreement until Jan. 6, 1999.
In the meantime, the Players Association has been preparing the players on how to deal with a prolonged labor stoppage. Union leader Billy Hunter has been advising players for nearly two years to save money in case of a lockout and to scale back on big expenses and purchases.
Players have also likely been coached in ways to answer questions that will elicit more sympathetic responses from the public than in 1998, when Kenny Anderson talked about his financial hardships and how he may have to sell one of his 10 cars and Patrick Ewing said that NBA players make a lot of money but also spend a lot of money.
One thing that appears unlikely would be NBA players going overseas to play basketball during the lockout. For one, FIBA would have to approve teams overseas signing players who currently have contracts with NBA teams, and FIBA has given no indications that it would do so. And even if players were allowed to sign contracts with other teams, there are only so many roster spots open, leaving most of the NBA players out in the cold. Also, the insurance costs for players with NBA contracts would be too great for most international teams to cover, and the risk of getting injured while playing overseas is a big gamble since it could void the player’s NBA deal.
There is still room for optimism, though. Both sides have expressed a desire to continue negotiating with each other and neither side has broken off talks with the other. Perhaps both sides realize that a prolonged labor dispute between millionaires and billionaires could do irreparable harm to a league that had just started to recover from its last lockout.
The cancellation of a full season would be devastating to the league, considering that the NFL is the dominant sports league in the United States and that the NBA’s two most marketable players (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant) are either despised by many NBA fans or on the decline talent-wise. The league struggled mightily during the lockout-shortened season to regain popularity; if a full season is lost, interest in the league could reach an all-time low.
Both sides realize what is at stake. Both sides also remain optimistic that the other side will blink first. And caught in the middle are the fans, many of whom may not stick around to see how it all pans out.
By: Eric Lorenz
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