HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We’ve all known for a while now that the first week of October would serve as a crucial week in these NBA labor talks.
No progress before then and the opening days of this month could be a make-or-break time for both sides, not to mention the millions of us around the world biting our nails hoping that our first love (the NBA) would come back to us … and soon.
It’s hard to categorize the things that have gone on in recent days as true progress. Sure, there have been meetings. Ideas have been exchanged. But no one is talking in a way that suggests that even the loose framework of a deal is under way.
And now comes this crossroads moment, a “very huge day,” according to the words used by union president Derek Fisher in characterizing today’s session.
We won’t know exactly what that means until the sides emerge from that meeting room in New York and explain themselves after yet another day of exhausting conversation about how to close the gap between what the owners want and the players are willing to give.
But if the developments of the past 24 hours are any indication, everyone seems to be digging in and the clock continues to tick …
Agents Urge Players To Stay Strong
Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated: In a letter to their clients, Arn Tellem (Wasserman Media Group), Bill Duffy (BDA Sports), Dan Fegan (Lagardère Unlimited), Jeff Schwartz (Excel Sports Management), Leon Rose and Henry Thomas (Creative Artists Agency) and Mark Bartelstein (Priority Sports and Entertainment), outlined what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable going into the biggest day of negotiating yet.
Here are some of the notable demands in the letter, which was obtained by SI.com from a player: (Click here for the full letter in PDF):
• With the National Basketball Players’ Association having already offered to drop the players’ portion of basketball-related income from 57 percent to 52 percent, the agents implore players to insist on “no further reduction of the BRI received by the players. A source close to the union told SI.com recently that any agreed-upon deal in which the players received 51 percent could possibly be ratified but would likely lead to the ousting of Billy Hunter as the NBPA’s executive director, so this is in line with those parameters.
• A system in which the current structure of the Bird and mid-level exceptions remains the same.
• No reduction in salary from existing levels for maximum contract players.
• No changes in unrestricted free agency and improvements on restricted free agency.
• “Refuse any deal that excludes players from the explosive growth of the NBA.” Owners’ proposals that have started with players receiving 46 percent of the BRI have included drastic declines in their percentage of the pie in the later years of the agreement.
The agents also tell players to make a few demands outside of the proposal as well.
• “Demand that the NBPA submit any proposed agreement to a vote by all NBA players and provide every player with a reasonable amount of time to review and consider the proposed deal.” As reported by ESPN.com, players were given less than a day to vote on the owners’ proposal in 1998 and only 184 of the 400-plus players actually voted.
• “Demand to see the complete financial records of the owners over the past six seasons, including their related entities (such as regional sports networks and arenas).”
The letter is clearly a preemptive strike on the part of the agents, their best attempt at playing a part in the negotiations and the latest sign of their lack of faith in the NBPA. Yet while players certainly look to their agents for information, insight and advice, the reality is that the majority of them will follow their own instincts when the time comes to vote on a deal. And if a there’s one that is less than ideal but lets the season to begin, a fair number of those players will likely be willing to sign off.
Letter Raises Valid Points
Ric Bucher of ESPN The Magazine: It’s common knowledge around the NBA that, as the agents’ letter points out, those financial records don’t account for all sorts of money-making enterprises the owners have and benefit from because they own an NBA franchise. It doesn’t account for owners who bought an arena in conjunction with buying a team, and therefore can reap the profits of staging concerts and conventions and monster-truck rallies. It doesn’t account for the regional TV networks various owners have, where they get to negotiate TV broadcast deals with themselves because televising their teams’ games is the signature content.
Maybe the craziest aspect of buying into the owners’ narrative is that what little we do know about the financial picture for the league’s two most profitable teams — the Lakers and New York Knicks — suggests those two teams could finance a profitable league all by themselves. The Lakers just signed a local cable TV deal that will, by industry estimates, increase their profits from that revenue stream alone from $30 million to $150 million. Annually. For the next 20 years.
And yet the Knicks, according to several league front-office sources, will remain the most profitable team in the league, as they’ve been for the past decade. This, despite the fact that they’ve made the playoffs twice in the past 10 years with a $100 million-plus player payroll that led the league for many of those years.
Are there teams in cities such as New Orleans and Sacramento that are not that flush right now? Absolutely. And yet there are still buyers lining up for a chance to own them. There can be only one of two reasons for that being the case. One, there are a lot of really stupid rich people looking to throw away their money. Two, those teams aren’t, or shouldn’t be, losing money.
When the negotiating committees began exchanging proposals in earnest last week, several league sources assured me it was a matter of when, not if, a deal would be struck. Some even suggested the owners already have much of what they want and are simply looking at how much they can squeeze out of the players at this point.
The one thing that stood out in all those conversations is that no one ever talked about what the owners “need” to make the league viable. They talked only about what they “want.”
That, to me, is the essence of what the agents are saying to their clients: these negotiations aren’t about the league’s future. Only yours.
Fireworks Up Next?
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com: Kaboom. Tuesday could be the day when the struggle for economic survival in basketball blows sky-high.
I have thought for some time that calmer heads would prevail, and that the deal that is so obvious for me to see would be agreed to with no financial casualties — with no real games lost. If I can see the deal — a 52-48 split of revenues in favor of the players, modest but meaningful system changes that would rein in out-of-control spending and raises in the future, and massive revenue sharing enhancements to help low-revenue teams compete — then surely David Stern, Adam Silver, Billy Hunter and Fisher can see it.
Ah, but while those will be the people negotiating the deal, they will not be the people approving it or rejecting it. Those would be the owners and the players, who are advised and influenced by their agents. And here is what we know about all of them:
• The players, who will be represented in full force again Tuesday when the two sides meet in Manhattan with an on-time start to the regular season at stake, tend to get emotional when confronted with the fact that people are endeavoring to take large sums of their money.
• The agents mean well, and for the most part are trying to protect their clients. But they nonetheless injected themselves into the process again Monday when it was revealed that seven of the most powerful in their ranks made a direct, written appeal to players that doesn’t exactly work in concert with the union’s current predicament.
• The owners? The very people being counted on to move off their bold bargaining position and secure a fair and reasonable deal with the players? These are the same people who gave Rashard Lewis $118 million and solved that problem by trading him for a washed-up Gilbert Arenas — with a worse, even longer contract. The same people who gave Drew Gooden $32 million and Darko Milicic $20 million. The same people who hired and refused to fire Isiah Thomas, who continue to employ David Kahn, who change general managers like socks in Portland and who fire off rants in comic sans in Cleveland. Not the sharpest implements on the surgical tray, and in any event, not people whose actions can be predicted with any certainty.
“If anybody’s telling you they know how this is going to end,” a respected team executive told me Monday, “they’re lying to your face.”
And so with the players at the bargaining table again Tuesday, with agents threatening decertification, and with it, the assurance of a gaping hole in the season, and with owners enjoying some crudites with their coup d’etat at another swanky Manhattan hotel, we wait for the next shoe to drop. At the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, I am less convinced than ever the shoe will fit — that the fair deal sitting right there on the table will get as much attention as the lunch spread.
Stern In the Middle?
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: Once again, does Stern want to be the commissioner for everyone on Tuesday, and ultimately spare his sport a bloodbath of courtrooms, lawsuits and maybe a lost 2011-12 season? He needs to gather his owners, propose a deal the players can accept, and understand that this is no time to run up the score on the union. The owners have already won big. Stern’s spent most of his professional life as an unapologetic bully, but this time, enough’s enough.
Stern is chasing his own big salary, his own big bonuses, and he knows there’s a deal the players will take that will give his owners a fair chance for profits and competitive balance. He invited this insurrection out of the agents, and now it’s coming. He needs to end it, and spare the NBA a needless bloodbath.
“We’re not just walking off the cliff with [Hunter],” one prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. “We’re ready to take the next step and decertify. We’re not going to let the league set up (Tuesday’s) meeting as a way to trap us into a bad deal.”
Said another powerful agent: “Stern doesn’t want to deal with us; he wants Billy and his lawyers in there. Maybe if Stern’s faced with revealing financial records, legal costs and paying possibly billions in damages, maybe he’ll have more incentive to make a deal than sitting across the room from Hunter, eat turkey sandwiches and taking a percentage point at a time away from the players.”
Stern doesn’t want the nuclear option of decertification, but he’s forced the players to pursue it. This has been a rigged process for years, and most agents regret only that they didn’t oust Hunter on July 1, when the owners locked them out. Back then, Hunter could’ve stayed as the front man in talks the way the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith did in the NFL’s decertification, but not now. Hunter’s done, and the agents can’t wait to unload him. For those who say that this isn’t personal, well, they’re kidding themselves.
The fans don’t care about those politics, nor should they. Without the framework of a deal, these next 24 hours could bring an Armageddon that will set back years of NBA momentum. The players have offered givebacks, and Stern and his owners sneered at them. The agents have wanted Stern on a level playing field for years, and they’re determined to sue that smirk off his face. They don’t care about the PR war, they care about winning. Billions of dollars are a stake, and, truth be told, the agents can spare the players the inevitable bad-guy role that the public invariably thrusts upon them in these labor disputes.
Common Sense Will Prevail
Chris Sheridan of Sheridanhoops.com: Every time the players made a concession, I said Stern would put it in his pocket and walk away, offering nothing in return.
He hasn’t budged yet, but his time to give ground has finally arrived.
The key quote from Stern yesterday: “We’re apart on the split,” he said, “but we know that the answer lies between where they were and where we are. And without defining ours, or defining theirs, I think if there’s a will, we’ll be able to deal with both the split and with the system issues.”
So the big question heading in today’s epic clash, er, meeting, between owners and players is whether Stern is ready to play Let’s Make a Deal (click for a rare look at a ’74 Bricklin).
And given how yesterday’s letter from seven of the league’s most prominent agents has opened so many eyes to what has been offered so far, it is time for Stern to back off. If he proposes a 52/48 split, it’ll get ratified. If he goes to 51/49, the ratification vote may come down to a hanging chad or two — a risk Stern is probably willing to take. It it’s 50/50 (including a starting number that represents a cut from the $2.17 billion the players earned last year), he is risking his professional legacy on a single, solitary percentage point.
I do not expect the owners to put their best offer forward today when the sides met at a Times Square hotel. Stern doesn’t play that way. His “last and best” offer to save the scheduled Nov. 1 start of the regular season probably comes Wednesday or Thursday. But even he must realize that he has more to lose than to gain by continuing to play this game of his like a lawyer instead of like an athlete.
I have been saying all along that the people doing this deal are reasonable men, and at a certain point reason and common sense must prevail.
I have seen this movie before, so I am not yet ready to go all doomsday as some of my colleagues are.