Optimism on life support... or who's up for a Historic Blunder?
Of course, NBA players would be out of their gourds to reject 50 percent of revenue because it's not 51 percent, a difference of, oh, $400 million over 10 years ... compared to the $780 million they lose in a 50-game season ... or $2 billion if there's no season.
Who lets these guys out without babysitters? Of course, that also applies to the owners who are threatening to shut down for the same 1 percent. It's one thing to fight to the end when you have to, like the destitute NHL in 2004. It's another thing to get a massive giveback with NBA players ready to go from 57 percent to 51 percent of basketball-related income, then go to war for the last 1 percent.
NBA owners now agree that Commissioner David Stern promised them too much. It's true. On the other hand, there's a good reason why Stern promised so much while expecting to end this short of a cataclysm. Despite the NBA's issues -- thin operating margins, rich-market dominance -- its future is so bright with TV rights fees heating up, it needs shades, not blinders.
This fight goes back to the 2008-09 season, the fourth season of the old labor deal, at which point no one had cited any $250 million annual losses. With the economy melting down, Stern, the owners and everyone running anything in America thought they would have to reconfigure all deals. Billy Hunter was so agreeable, he appeared with Stern at the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix, offering to discuss a new deal there and then ("We all understand that we live and benefit from the success of the NBA."
The NBA decided to wait for crunch time, taking the "crunch" literally. Stern told his owners he'd fix this without taxing the rich, as they always had with revenue-sharing about 10 percent of baseball's, as Portland's Paul Allen and the Knicks' James Dolan, whose luxury taxes financed small-market losses, pulled back.
Stern wanted to cut the players' 57-43 share to 50-50, giving himself bargaining room by starting with the owners at 57 and the players at 43. That was so transparent, NBA officials complained that union people weren't even taking it seriously.
Meanwhile, something no one on either side expected happened. The economy recovered, at least as it affected the NBA. With a glamor-market rebirth as the Lakers and Celtics won three titles and met in two Finals, revenue fell off once, in 2009-10... by 1.7 percent, after the NBA said it might drop 12 percent.
With LeBron James' move making Miami the most controversial NBA team ever, last season's BRI jumped to a record $3.8 billion. For three years, Stern let the thunder roll ahead of his campaign as it never had, with modern media living for sensation and doomsday scenarios.
In fact, if the players did owe the owners some relief... and big markets owed small ones some relief... things were turning up. The Lakers' new 20-year $2.5 billion deal with Time Warner heralds a new day with zooming local TV rights. Insiders say Laker profits, which used to be in the $45-60 million range, will go north of $150 million when the new deal starts in 2012-13.
If small markets won't come near that, they'll get more than they did... one reason why Phil Anschutz's AEG, which owns Staples Center, offered to finance a new arena in Sacramento.
This is the league they want to shut down?
Stern had always had absolute control of his owners. Even with heat from the small-market guys -- Donald Sterling of the Clippers told him he would have fired him at one meeting -- Stern expected to be able to get them in line once again.
Had they made a deal two weeks ago when they could have played 82 games, it might have happened. Now Stern is demanding the players take the offer or he'll roll it back to 47 percent of revenue, cut existing contracts, etc.
In other words, it's now or never, or at least not before January. It's not that the players won't consider the offer, and may even accept it. The problem is Stern is playing to his hard-liners, talking to 400 players, half of whom have Tony Montana posters, like they're punks. How nuts is this?
Consider some hard-line owners, who are like the fake needy President Ronald Reagan had in mind when alluding to "the truly needy." The list starts with Allen, the richest and biggest taxpayer ever, having once written a check for more than $50 million. Then there's Sterling, thought to have made at least $100 million in 11 seasons in Staples Center while appearing in the playoffs once.
Others include San Antonio's Peter Holt, another taxpayer whose stars are now in their declining years, and Minnesota's "hard-pressed" Glen Taylor, another billionaire who just gave Rick Adelman a five-year $25 million deal.
Hey, there's nothing that says owners can't lose their minds. It's why they want to be owners.
It happened in baseball, over and over, finally with horrible consequences. Today, the union, not the commissioner, runs baseball, which, alone among major U.S. leagues, has no salary cap.
Commishes tried to put in meaningful steroid testing, which might have headed off the scandal that followed, in the '80s, but that was a no-go for the union, too. How did the union get so powerful? Baseball owners declared war in shutdown after shutdown.
Fighting for survival, the union went from a dissension-riven band with stars like Carl Yasztremski and Mike Marshall splitting off, to a superb, united fighting force, run by hard-nosed lawyers Marvin Miller and Don Fehr.
By 1994, the commissioner was Bud Selig, the likeable owner the other owners elected to stop telling them things they didn't want to hear from outsiders like Peter Ueberroth and Fay Vincent.
Selig let the players start that season without a contract, handing them control of the calendar.
On Aug. 12 with the post-season nearing and leverage swinging to them, the players struck.
Selig lost his World Series, made peace the next spring amid fears of treble damages from the union's anti-trust suit and hasn't challenged it since.
Good luck, NBA. If no one has the sense God gave a goose, you're all going to need it.