In the NBA lockout, millionaire players trump billionaire owners

I'm telling you: You owners won't like Kevin Garnet when he's angry. (AJC file photo)

I'm just sayin': The owners won't like Kevin Garnett when he's angry. (AJC file photo)

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

109 comments Add your comment

Outside Observer

October 26th, 2011
2:54 pm

Yay for Underdogs! Wait, who are the underdogs again?

Matt

October 26th, 2011
3:00 pm

Come on Mark. As with all negotiations, the less-paid players (you know, the ones “only” making a couple million a year) are the ones who will make a ton of noise soon and force the union to cave. KG, Kobe, and Pierce could retire today and be fine. It’s the rank and file who will cause the union to cave. I read the Joe Smith’s $6 million house is being foreclosed on – just the beginning.

ATL Fan

October 26th, 2011
3:06 pm

Some people have real problems.

Eisendawg

October 26th, 2011
3:06 pm

I don’t usually wish for anyone’s failure, but in this case, it would thrill me to see the entire season canceled. Pro athletes and politicians live by a different set of rules.

misterwax

October 26th, 2011
3:09 pm

The NBA is quite boring to me…. I lost interest in the Hawks a long time ago… too many thugs and not enough class players…. it’s boring. May the lockout continue for all time.

ATL Fan

October 26th, 2011
3:10 pm

Maybe they will cancel the NBA season this year and let all the Pros go to Europe. Let the Europeans vie for the players against the NBA. Then next year, get the NBA going again and let the two markets have a World Championship Series.

dap01

October 26th, 2011
3:11 pm

I hope that both sit and they both lose. Unfortunately, concession and other support people will suffer.

NBA players don’t have a clue about what is going on in the economy. Nobody misses the NBA. Nobody.

What is Lebron doing with his talentS right now? How are those talentS doing? He is practicing the heinlick on that choking he did in the playoffs?

Westurd

October 26th, 2011
3:12 pm

Screw the players. I hate that they run the league and can minipulate things to the point where they decide which teams they are willing to play for an treaten to run if the team isn’t willing to trade them when asked.
Screw em!

Sonny Clusters

October 26th, 2011
3:12 pm

Let’s say the top NBA players all left. Some new players would come in and they would be the top players. This is a lot like the Atlanta Braves who just suffered an EPIC collapse. Move some of the stars and somebody else will be a star. Nobody had ever heard of Stinky Wintes until he got some playing time.

Gordon

October 26th, 2011
3:12 pm

To heck with the NBA. It’s boring anyway with it’s clear-out plays, superstar fouls, and lack of strategy (6 fouls, 24 second shot clock, etc.).

When do college hoops start?

chalkdawg4

October 26th, 2011
3:13 pm

Lock out is the best thing that could happen to the Hawks. Let Iso Joe’s contract run out if possible.

dtanner

October 26th, 2011
3:21 pm

would rather watch womens golf,bowling or professional poker than have to watch an n.b.a. game

moboman

October 26th, 2011
3:27 pm

Let em sit. The show has gotten boring with its lack of consistent foul calling, extra steps taken on each drive to the hoop and not called, and me first offensive schemes, all for the superstars egos. I would rather watch the college game. These guys need a reality check. Unfortunate for the non player employees who have to suffer through this.

Matt for MN

October 26th, 2011
3:30 pm

You’ve captured the problem with the NBA, it’s now individuals vs. teams. The sport has become nothing but a glorified playground pick-up game with players going one on one. Passing and team play have become obsolete. I’ve lost interest and frankly find today’s product BORING.

G

October 26th, 2011
3:37 pm

I contend that the NBA fan base is not strong enough to where if the season was canceld the fans would return. It could be the end of the NBA as we know it if they end up canceling the season. It took years for baseball to rebound, and some would argue it still hasn’t completely rebounded. The NBA is in real trouble here…

G

October 26th, 2011
3:42 pm

In my opinion the NBA does not have a strong enough fan base to withstand a canceling of too many more games. The fans will not come back. It took baseball a long time to rebuild it’s base and some would argue it still hasn’t completely. I think the NBA is in real trouble here….

Dontavius Supremo

October 26th, 2011
3:43 pm

I find it hard to believe that anyone really cares about either of these two camps. Professional basketball is a joke. Stick with the high school and college game; it’s a better product.

Paul

October 26th, 2011
3:45 pm

Bradley,

What, besides money, is typically decided in these restructurings? Is all league business handled in one CBA? These changes are always reported secondarily, when they are more relevant to the casual observer — like the NFL kickoff rule.

Gwinnett Fred

October 26th, 2011
3:46 pm

And this sums up perfectly why 80% of the neation could care less if they start playing!

Unless you live in LA, Miami, New York or Chicago (and maybe 1 or 2 other places) – going to an NBA regular season game just doesn’t have any pull.

Seriously, a family of 4 has to plunk down at minimum $200, in this econony, to sit in any kind of decent seat, to watch a 87-81 NBA game. There just aren’t too many cities around the country that have enough people that will do that.

The NHL had to sit out a whole season a while back to get their point accross, and the NBA appears ready to do the same. The owners in the NBA are not like the NFL – in the NFL, they make tons of money. In the NBA, they make money elsewhere and most have a team as a plaything.

Players will cave soon enough – tattoos aren’t cheap!

Paul

October 26th, 2011
3:49 pm

Also: Folks feigning distaste for the NBA might note that the league is coming off of its single best ratings season since probably the mid-90’s. People don’t just quit watching when, on a Tuesday night in December, with no other sports on, it’s Heat v. Celtics or anyone else.

Baseball’s strike lost some fans shortly thereafter but they all came back in 1998 when McGuire had his season. What reallly hurt baseball was steroids and inflated stats. All of the magic of those seasons was manipulated and that hurt more than anything.

some sense

October 26th, 2011
3:54 pm

Mark, I think you’re wrong on this one. Even the all-time great player, uh, adorer, Stephen A. Smith, said on Sports Reporters Sunday that the players “have no leverage” against ownerships that don’t profit. Calling them, collectively, “billionaires” is way off the mark. They are not, collectively, Mark Cuban or Jerry Buss. Owners will win this one, I think, because their current business model just doesn’t work. But when this thing is settled, the players will still be doing just fine, maybe especially the Joe Johnsons of the world.

Bob

October 26th, 2011
3:58 pm

I hope they shut down the whole league. I lost interest after Magic, Bird, Jordan, and Dominique retired. The majority today are spoiled brats or thugs. I will stick with other sports and laugh my butt off when the NBA turns into the NHL.

BulldogBen

October 26th, 2011
3:58 pm

Please MB. The current NBA model is crippled by the “promote the stars” archetype and it allows them to get astronomical contracts.

Also, since there are so few superstars, parity is the WORST of any professional sport. 9 teams have won the title in 30 YEARS.

Hope is the biggest commodity in pro sports. The NBA stopped selling that decades ago. No hope = no butts in the seats.

Even a team like the Hawks. Anyone really think they’re Championship worthy as constructed? Of course not, and they have actually SPENT money.

Najeh Davenpoop

October 26th, 2011
3:59 pm

“The players have caught on, and they know nobody ever tunes in to watch Jerry Buss own.”

This is true, but it has less to do with the NBA’s marketing strategy than you make it seem. In any sport — really, in any aspect of the entertainment industry — people tune in to watch the so-called “labor”. There’s a reason the Dome sold out when Vick was here and was half empty in 2007. There’s a reason Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium and Turner Field were packed in the mid-’90s when the players were good and sits half empty now that the players are not as good. The stars are more visible in the NBA than in other sports, but let’s be real, it’s not like people are going to tune in to watch the Colts this year without Peyton Manning.

There is no sport where the owners matter more than the players. Nobody is tuning in to watch Arthur Blank or Liberty Media either.

urm

October 26th, 2011
4:00 pm

I for one have written off the NBA. I usually like MB articles but this one had a tone that did not sit well for some reason.

Devil's Advocate

October 26th, 2011
4:04 pm

As I said with the NFL lockout, don’t compare pro players to politicians, CEOs or investment bankers. Pro players don’t steal people’s money via taxes, give themselves unwarranted benefit packages/bonuses or bank accounts. Pro players are just like any other entertainer or small business owner who earns money based on what the customer willingly gives. Granted, a large portion of the pro athlete’s salary comes from TV deal money but without ratings there would be no advertising dollars.

I can’t stand when people who claim to be pro-free market/capitalism slam the few people who are rich because of their own talents and nothing else. These are the purest rich people out there. Katy Perry is going to be filthy rich just like Oprah and Tom Cruise if she keeps turning out songs that end up at #1. Athletes are no different. Popularity and the dollars that come with it are the bottom line. I don’t care what their personalities are like, they earned their checks.

Najeh Davenpoop

October 26th, 2011
4:06 pm

Also, in a way it makes sense for the NBA to promote its stars since basketball (not just the NBA) is a star-driven sport. A football team with a spectacular QB can still lose if the defense, offensive line, skill position players, etc. suck, and conversely a football team without any big stars can win if the system and execution are good. A baseball team with A-Rod can still finish in last place. But a basketball team only has five players on the court at a time, and unlike other sports, a star basketball player is a) on the floor for most of the game and b) plays on both the offensive end and defensive end. This is less about the NBA’s rules and marketing and more about the very nature of the sport itself. Even in college sports, the teams with the future NBA All Stars are typically the ones that make deep runs in the tournament year after year.

And really, the college game with its short three-point line and lack of an illegal defense rule makes the game less</em free flowing. If you like teams shooting 18.8% in the national championship game and taking half its shots from behind the 3-point line, that’s up to you, but you’d have a hard time convincing a lot of people that that is a better brand of basketball than what the Mavs and Heat displayed in the NBA Finals.

NB.... *zzzzzzzzzz*

October 26th, 2011
4:07 pm

“millionaire players trump billionaire owners”

they sure are showing those owners whose boss! Games possibly cancelled through Nov. 28 …. that’ll sure show them!

BTW, where’s the poll that asks if anyone even cares if the NBA is in a lockout? I don’t, a lot of other people don’t …. they just need to save us the trouble of having to hear about these on going “negotiations” (which at this point the only thing being negotiated is how many games should they cancel). So many people out of jobs and these idiots are trying to make themselves even more money (here’s an idea, stop televising the games that’ll get rid of a large part of the problem)

Najeh Davenpoop

October 26th, 2011
4:10 pm

“Also, since there are so few superstars, parity is the WORST of any professional sport. 9 teams have won the title in 30 YEARS. ”

This is the real problem. Owners and players can fight about revenue sharing and salary caps all they want, but if they really care about competitive balance the NBA needs to contract about six teams. And neither side will allow that to happen.

rambover

October 26th, 2011
4:14 pm

I’m alarmed that every writer in the media — you included, Mark — seems to side with the players in this standoff. The NBA is in trouble, and it was clear before negotiations began that the players were going to have to give back a lot this time. The shift in the previous CBA to slot salaries for draftees was a good move; so was the shortening by one year of maximum contracts. Still, contracts are too long and too much money is guaranteed. There are so many bad contracts. The game, players included, will be hurt if this broken business model isn’t changed.

Heisenberg

October 26th, 2011
4:18 pm

I simply do not understand how the player can demand to have his contract gauranteed when he does not have to gaurantee he can perform up to the level of the salary. This goes beyond basketball but all professional sports. Sure one can argue the owners made the deal. But it is a 2-way deal. The player needs to live up tp his end. If a team could cut an overpaid/underperforming player (Eddie Curry), then it can pay a more deserving player more. Gauranteed contracts suck. These guys need to earn their keep like the rest of us working stiffs or find a job that pays relative to their skills and contributions.

Baddabing

October 26th, 2011
4:21 pm

The disparity in team salaries (and talent) is what has ruined baseball and is what will ruin the NBA. I hope the season gets cancelled. Pro sports leagues business models (at least basketball and baseball) need to be torn down and rebuilt. A hard cap is the only thing that will keep these leagues competitive for all teams. Allowing players to form alliances to play together is collusion just like they say the owners have colluded to lock the players out. It’s all about greed on both sides, nothing more, nothing less.

Chris

October 26th, 2011
4:22 pm

Mark, I think you’re right that the players in this league have all the power, but where you’re wrong is assuming that they’ll leverage that power to get the deal they want. I think the owners and fans are sick of the current situation and want change, even if it means waiting a year. I’m tired of whiny NBA millionaires forcing teams to do whatever they wish. I’m sick of my teams being unwatchable for years because we panicked and gave a bloated contract to a young kid who never tries to reach his potential. Frankly, I’d be fine if all NBA players were canned and they started fresh with a league of college grads. Players sell t-shirts, but ultimately, the game and the traditions are what will bring fans back.

chris

October 26th, 2011
4:22 pm

WHO CARES!!! I hope they don’t come back and they have to go get real jobs. If and When they do come back I think they will be playing in front of half empty arena’s and I hope for once the fans let their voice be heard and don’t rush back and buy tickets.

Dozer

October 26th, 2011
4:27 pm

Can we stop with the “millionaires v. billionaires” cliche??? Its approaching “eight in the box” levels…..

GT

October 26th, 2011
4:37 pm

If Europe gets the television contracts the sport may stay over there, and never come back. These guys can make millions if they handle this right, the real money is made off television and mechanise and the NBA would turn to the WBA. Not only would you keep your American market but you may gain an international one, maybe doubling their revenue.

tiger woo

October 26th, 2011
4:38 pm

“The NBA is quite boring to me…. I lost interest in the Hawks a long time ago… too many thugs and not enough class players…. it’s boring.”

You could also be describing hockey. Of course, too many white thugs is acceptable, right?

“Stick with the high school and college game; it’s a better product.”

Whatever – the talent level is much better in the NBA.

Mike Tyson

October 26th, 2011
4:40 pm

I like it when the players choke the coach, or run up in the stands and attack the spectators. Now that is quality family entertainment and values!

C

October 26th, 2011
4:46 pm

They both should take a 50% pay cut. Most of the players lose their skills when arriving in the nba. No defense, no offense only bad acting and crying. Make the ticket prices reasonable and the same no matter what team is coming to town. It’s gotten so boring, I usually only watch a quarter of a game.

extremus

October 26th, 2011
4:52 pm

The NBA is dead and deserves it where I’m concerned; even the NFL doesn’t have the sheer arrogance and prima donna displays that pro basketball has succumbed to. A self-centered rap and hip hop culture that’s pervaded the league for about a decade now has alienated many fans (including myself); it’s the least universal of the four major pro sports (perhaps with the exception of hockey, which itself isn’t exactly front page news in many areas of the country anymore).

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was “The Decision”, LeBron James’ hedonistic hour-long self-promotion that exemplified a culture of self above teammates, above loyalty to the city or fans who’ve supported you, that basically beats one’s own chest and proclaims oneself a god (differing only to money, of course). ESPN may have gotten a lot of views during that nauseating feature, but they lost a TON of respect from fans of the game.

Now the NBA is finally facing what was inevvitable; a labor conflict between billionaire owners and spoiled, self-centered NBA players who are already way overpaid. Pride and arrogance are just as much at the core as money, and the result will likely be the league’s ultimate implosion or even demise. If so, good riddance and may it serve as a warning for the other major sports (some of which, like baseball, are nearing their own big labor negotiations). The current state of things in professional sports (ever-spiraling guaranteed contracts, mercenary free agency that’s pulling more and more star athletes into a select few larger markets, and the general self-promotion and lack of loyalty) is unsustainable. May the NBA’s death serve notice to that effect for the sake of the greater whole.

Three Jack

October 26th, 2011
4:53 pm

I get more entertainment out of watching occupy protestors get arrested than an entire NBA season.

GwinnettDad

October 26th, 2011
4:54 pm

I didn’t watch one NBA game last year, since players care more about getting their tats than playing defense. One need only watch the last 6 minutes of any NBA game, because that’s when the game matters. How exciting would baseball be if EVERY game was 5-4 or 6-5? Otherwise, a bunch of overpaid, over-hyped mama’s boys that don’t give a damn about their team, only their next advertisement. Much more important is getting laid after the game by as many different women as possible. Disgusted with the self-centered consumption, and the NBA can fold and I won’t miss it one bit. The days of REAL basketball, Russell, Cousy, Bob Petitt, & Michael are long gone. Watch Lebron? I’d rather hit myself in the head with a hammer than watch that spoiled brat clutch once again, and betray anybody that rooted for him. The NBA game is too boring to bother with.

ignition

October 26th, 2011
4:59 pm

Funny NBA has too many “thug” & tattoo’s…
WTH does the NFL, College Football, & Hockey layers have.. ?????? (Whom btw are way worse offenders)

bjohndawg

October 26th, 2011
5:07 pm

Why dont they hold a dunkin contest. Because that is all the NBA is. No fundamentals just one on one and dunking. College game is where it is at.

Why have pro teams? Just have dunk-offs.
Or better yet, they can have contests to see which player can have the most out of wedlock children.
They could call it the baby’s daddy game. Jammin and Jammin that is what today’s NBA players are about.

My point….the players are selfish, offish, and boring. Just like the owners.
Let them all go down together.

I stop watching when the Hawks started suxing, and sorry cannot find my way back to the boring game that is today’s NBA.

durtydog

October 26th, 2011
5:13 pm

@Hillbilly……..No one cares who you and your momma/wife/sister/cousin watch! Shet up and dip your dip you dip!

GwinnettDad

October 26th, 2011
5:17 pm

Actually, I love college basketball. Just look at the spirit in the stands, which is transmitted to the players on the court. It is much more a coach’s game, where the NBA is much more a player’s game. They’ll be far more variety in college games than in the NBA from a numerical standpoint, and therefore the game has far more variety. Not a single NBA game comes close in spirit, not even in the NBA finals. Boring.

However, the racists here already known everything, and nothing I say will matter to them, since their minds are so closed. They’re so angry, that they can’t see that they’re the problem, and that there isn’t any solution to cure their hatreds other than them changing their lives from the inside out. A large number are already on the web through their local county jail web site, which shows where such attitudes lead too often. Thus, I pity them, for many are beyond human aid.

Nevertheless, recent self-serving rhetoric has compared the spoiled NBA brats to slaves. Wow! If anybody, anywhere, wants to talk about greed, don’t look at banks, at oil companies, at any private enterprise. Look at the NBA first!

So I might agree more with some of those Occupy protestors if they’d only sit in the middle of an NBA basketball court!

durtydog

October 26th, 2011
5:18 pm

It’s crazy to think that we will ever win anything in any sport. Most of you are pathetic winers who never go to games but always have something to say about them. If you believe any basketball player is a Thug, your an idiot. Most of the those guys are pretty boy wanna be cool spoiled brats. Thugs!! Please. Don’t let a few black guys with tats scare you. LOL! This is the reason why I don’t like bloggers. Most of you are racists who sit around scared to say things to anyone face. Hey Hillbilly, I wonder how many black guys you work with at Home Depot know how you feel about them. I bet none. Your a punk and you hide behind a computer screen.

Hillbilly

October 26th, 2011
5:19 pm

durtydog – go put on your LeBron James pajamas and take your nap!

All I'm Saying Is....

October 26th, 2011
5:24 pm

Owners should agree to the 53% for the players and in exchange insist on a hard salary cap. With that, case closed and problem solved. Players get majority of the dollars (which I think makes sense philosophically) which is cut down from 57% and the Owners get a hard cap to protect them from themselves — which is how they got into the mess of losing money (if that fact is to be believed).

LET’S GO HAWKS!

Hillbilly

October 26th, 2011
5:26 pm

durtydog – you don’t scare me! You can find me at Home Deport in the stock room if you want me – come get some, sweetie!