The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
NBA owners continue to scream bloody apocalypse. The year 2011 marks the doomsday date, with the L-word -- "lock-out" -- graduating from whisper to constant ink. Non-basketball losses and flagging attendance (see update, end of post) make every cent count, and apparently the stars of the show make too many of the dollars. "Two pounds of flesh or stay home," the owners warn.
But David Stern assures you the NBA is fine. Thriving, even. Ratings boom nightly and the league's (to date) soft slip amid global economic Armageddon should reassure those who fret, Stern argues. A
Should we believe a commissioner preaching relaxation, or are the owners seizing with (some combination of) fear and blood-lust? Is the NBA really screwed?
Six months ago came the first mainstream mention of "lock-out" in the press -- an anonymous owner offered up a quote to Newsday threatening that without major concessions from the players the owners would cancel a season (or two!) Since then, the economy imploded, touching every industry in America. NBA owners tend to dabble in other industries (or maybe I have that backwards?), and many have been reportedly taking baths since the summer. Layoffs in Charlotte and Secaucus, coach flights for billionaire playboys, fire sales everywhere.
Cap space ruled everything around us, but cold cash has taken new precedence. Indiana's owners claim $30 million in losses and a dreadful franchise value. Sacramento might lose $25 million. The aforementioned anonymous seer quoted by Newsday pegged only a half-dozen teams as profitable. This all fuels the believable threats of a work stoppage, and screams for solution.
Let us be frank: all this dire shock doctrine thrashing -- true or not -- helps the owners. No matter how dedicated players have been to sensible financial management, their losses in this downturn will be smaller than those of the owners. It's a simple matter of scale. The owners have their beggar's hands out ... only the beggars can keep their marks from working until they empty their wallets.
Yet, here's Stern -- face of the owners -- painting the rosiest portrait of the NBA imaginable.
"I'd just say the 'doomsday scenario' is that the NBA is somehow going to be irretrievably damaged by some event or another. The predictions of the demise of the NBA were frequent and profound [over the years], and they've always been wrong."Machismo pride, or an attempt to steady the ship? The commissioner not only asserts full health, but has sanctioned owners and executives who dare relay the doomsday fears on the record. (NBA spokesman Tim Frank said, via e-mail, that speculation on what will happen in 2011 is premature at this point, and reiterated that Stern and the union have regular contact on this matter.)
As the walls crumble, setting the stage for a massive coup for the owners, Stern raises a facade -- potentially true, probably optimistic -- that dampens his case at the negotiating table.
Why? Stern doesn't come across as a man who learns lessons. Pardon my doe eyes, but he's a completely brilliant ball-buster. The Fake David Stern Twitter feed is hilarious because the over-the-top, fictionalized megalomania remains quite nearly believable. Whatever lessons Wall Street and America have learned or are learning from the financial meltdown don't apply to the NBA ... because Stern writes his own play sets. Wall Street covered its collective eyes as the ship burst into flames, and Stern at least appears to be doing the same. "We're fine, we're fine, I SAID WE'RE FINE! GET OFF MY LAWN!"
Now those enabling goons who refused to accurately capture the deep despair the crumbled economy would cause find themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion. Anyone who parrots Stern's lines potentially faces the same fate. Consider that which Stern implies: the collective bargaining agreement going into affect in 2011 must have major concessions from the players ... and we're going to get them, no problem. By brushing the matter under the rug, Stern raises his arms to the sky and declares, "We win."
We can only imagine how shocking Stern's demands will be. The increased age minimum (to 20 years old) is a no-brainer (unfortunately). Shorter contracts? The 2005 contract restricted player deals to six years maximum; Stern will likely want to go five (with four years being the limit for outside free agents). Small contracts? Stern will likely look to limit contract size a few ways: through the elimination of some salary cap exceptions (like the mid-level, which has turned $2-million players into $6-million players), through a constriction of the share of the salary cap maximum-salary players can earn, perhaps through a one-year extension of the rookie scale (a team option, of course).
Can the players say no to anything? Stern has said he'll meet with union chief Billy Hunter this summer to work on the CBA. What stance could Hunter possibly take? If the players association earns a victory, it'll be because Stern asked for far more than the above. Hunter and the players stood against the wall in 1998 and 2005 as Stern and the owners cocked their pistols. I don't see a dissimilar situation this time around.
So why, I asked, has Stern attempted to check the yelps of fear from the NBA's owner class, given that a doomsday horizon only helps make his case come 2011? It's because he has already won. Only the details remain at stake ... unless some hero steps up and defends the players association from conquest.
UPDATE: The NBA said attendance is actually slightly up this season, but does not maintain publicly accessible collected attendance numbers.