The NBA saved itself as a business by forming a partnership with its players and as a sporting entity by promoting those players to the absolute max. Today the league has locked out its players, and this might be the one time when millionaire players can outlast billionaire owners. Because NBA players know, in a way that other professional athletes never have or will, that the power lies with them.
There was a time when we thought of the NBA and thought of teams. (Mostly the Celtics and Lakers and Knicks, but teams still.) That time, however, was before most of today’s players were born. They — and we — know the contemporary NBA as that exalted realm where the best players aren’t known just by name but by first names, and sometimes by initials.
The NBA nearly collapsed in the late ’70s and the early ’80s. Pro basketball had become such a ratings loser that NBA finals games were being taped for late-night airing. Franchises were hemorrhaging money. Only in 1983, when the league imposed a salary cap while promising its players more than half of basketball-related income would be plowed back into salaries, did the NBA stabilize, and then it got lucky. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were already in the league, and Michael Jordan was about to arrive.
The league began to market its players — Magic vs. Bird! Michael vs. Isiah/Barkley/The Mailman!– and the NBA became not just popular and profitable, but immensely glamorous. Even now, nearly 30 years later, the league employs the same formula, which is why you’ll rarely see the Milwaukee Bucks on a national broadcast but you’ll get a twice-weekly dose of the Miami Heat. We can argue at length about whether this tactic has passed its expiration date, but we cannot argue this: The players have caught on, and they know nobody ever tunes in to watch Jerry Buss own.
Because the NBA has had a soft cap around which the bigger clubs could tap-dance, teams have overspent. (The NFL, by way of contrast, has a hard cap, and nobody overspends.) The NBA claims that more than two-thirds of its teams are losing money — the players, naturally, dispute this — and wants the players, who have been receiving 57 percent of income, to take 50 percent instead.
The players have countered by saying they’ll take 53 percent but not a penny less, and that’s where matters stands. The NBA has canceled training camp and the first two weeks of the regular season, and the New York Daily News reported this week that the league was prepared to cancel games through the end of November. Usually such delays work in the favor of those with the most money, but the players’ stance seems only to have hardened.
Why? Because its big names have gotten involved. Henry Abbott of ESPN’s True Hoop blog pinpoints Oct. 4 as “the moment the talks fell apart.” Included in that watershed session, Abbott notes, were Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — “three superstars who had been to very few of the meetings.” Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports claims Garnett’s presence was particularly significant, writing that the “glowering” KG was “defiant, determined and ornery.”
In sum, the truculent Garnett showed up to “negotiate” the same way he would stalk out to play a game of basketball. Should the same NBA that has marketed and profited from such KG antics the past 15 seasons have been surprised?
Don’t think that NBA superstars don’t carry outsize weight. This isn’t the NFL, where the few stars are outweighed by a thousand players you wouldn’t know if they knocked on your door. This is the league that has spent decades promoting the individual over the whole, and the individuals are acting as a whole.
The players aren’t being paid during the lockout, but the average NBA salary was $5.15 million last season. (That’s roughly the average salary of an MLB player and an NFL player combined.) These guys can afford to miss a few checks, and they seem wedded to their convictions. They’re the biggest part of the game, and they want the bigger share of money. If they can’t have it, their big names would rather play overseas or stage an exhibition tour. Can’t blame them one bit.
By Mark Bradley