In a recent column for ESPN.com, Jemele Hill wrote about a general public that would side with the NBA owners rather than the players.
“The cold truth is that despite the owners’ culpability in causing the broken NBA system,” she wrote, “the players will be the ones who take the brunt of the criticism simply because the owners aren’t as visible.”
She continued, “Not even the thrilling NBA playoffs will be enough to help the players maintain the goodwill they’ve established with fans. Because despite what (NBA Players Association chief Billy) Hunter may think, the struggling economy doesn’t make fans more sensitive to labor issues or player concerns.
“It makes them far less forgiving.”
Hill’s opinion is based in sound reasoning. Miners in West Virginia will not side with the players because of their own similar labor struggles. They will compare the NBA players’ salaries (an average of $4.8 million, according to Hill the highest in any professional sports league in the world) to their own and wonder why the hell such rich, fortunate people would ever complain about money. Miners have real problems to deal with; NBA players don’t. Or, at least, that’s how the sentiment goes.
But to side with the owners is to side with a group that seems very much dishonest, misleading and generally willing to blame an entire league’s financial struggles (if you can call earning an estimated $183 million struggling) on the players’ rising salaries—which, umm, aren’t actually rising. Due to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that just expired, salaries grew (or shrank) at the same rate as revenues. More than once, NBA players actually had to return portions of their salaries because total league salaries exceeded 57% of league revenues.
Though NBA owners claimed a combined $370 million in operating losses in 2009-10, Forbes estimates the NBA actually turned a $183 million profit. The owners have already opened their accounting books to the Players Union, but still attempt to mislead the press with figures that don’t accurately represent the league’s financial standing. (NY Times—I suggest you read the entire story)
The current labor deal — which was signed in 1999 and renewed with relatively few changes in 2005 — was initially considered favorable to the league. Although revenue growth may have been more tepid than the league might like, especially in the past few recessionary years, player salaries are tied to revenues and have grown at no faster a rate. The claims made by sports owners on the occasion of a labor dispute — smart and successful capitalists who suddenly become enamored of restrictions on the free market and their own wherewithal to make decisions — often stretch credulity. But to hear the N.B.A. owners complain about the current deal now, when none of the fundamentals have changed, reminds one of the old Woody Allen joke about two women kvetching at a restaurant: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” one says. “I know. And such small portions,” the other replies.
Put another way, there is no reason to assume that the N.B.A.’s actual financial condition falls somewhere in between the two figures: it may be just as likely that Forbes is underestimating rather overestimating the league’s profits. For instance, The Times reports the league’s revenues (not profits) to have been $4.3 billion in 2010-11, more than the $3.8 billion estimated by Forbes for 2009-10. (One reason that the Forbes estimates could be too low: it has become more difficult to measure ticket revenue since teams are now designating some of their most expensive tickets as ‘premium seating,’ and these seats are not reflected in publicly-available estimates of ticket prices.)
A revenue-sharing system would presumably be the easiest way to solve the NBA’s financial imbalance. According to the New York Times, “the profits made by the Knicks, Bulls and Lakers alone would be enough to cover the losses of all 17 unprofitable teams.” But the owners are hesitant to share revenue. It’s one thing to take money from the players’ pockets. It’s quite another to share television deals with the league’s smaller markets. Ugh.
So do you want to side with the millionaire players or the billionaire owners?
Or are you just like I am, meaning you are just rooting for basketball to be played as soon as possible, no matter how much money two opposing factions of disgustingly rich people need to sacrifice?