Damage of prolonged NBA lockout won't be known until it's too late
If NBA owners and players wise up and strike a deal in the next week or two, none of this will matter. The analysis. The projections. The opinions.
But as we've seen so many times during this silly span of four-plus months, presumptions of reason are ill-fated. And as pundits and the public continue to analyze this lockout from all angles, one key question that has everything to do with how long this might last remains largely unanswered:
How much damage will be done to the game by missing part of or all of a season?
It's a question that must be weighed by the owners especially, as they are the aggressors here and the ones whose franchises might ultimately suffer the most in the end. But some agents and superstar players are culpable as well, having derailed progress and a possible deal with hard-line stances of their own that are affecting the process.
No meetings between the two sides have been scheduled, and there is a players' executive committee meeting in New York on Thursday to plan their next step. But with disagreements on system issues and $100 million a year separating the two sides on the matter of basketball-related income, all involved must now decide whether fighting now is still worth the price they'll pay later.
But what is that price?
SI.com polled a few industry types to assess the hypothetical damage being done and found that -- much like the players and owners in these negotiations -- no one could seem to agree. Tulane law professor and sports labor analyst Gabe Feldman is convinced the owners' push will be worth it so long as an entire season isn't lost.
"I think for now, the cost-benefit analysis is fairly easy," Feldman said. "For now, it's worth the damage to goodwill that will come from missing a month or two from the games you might get. ...The damage from missing a couple of months is probably quickly reparable, relatively speaking.
"You've got to balance the short-term damage from missing a few weeks of the season vs. the long-term benefits that you get from a 10-year collective bargaining agreement. Then whatever gains you get are going to serve as the baseline for the next deal."
Yet missing an entire season, Feldman said, would be an entirely different story for both sides.
"There's a significant difference between canceling a month or two of the season and canceling the entire season, and I think both sides recognize that," he said.
Steve Kauffman, a prominent agent for NBA coaches and front-office executives who was a player agent during the 1998-99 lockout, believes the damage could be significant and blames hard-line owners and agents for preventing a deal from being reached.
"A few of these owners might not have that pure love for the game," Kauffman said. "That doesn't mean these guys aren't entitled to make business decisions that are in their best interests, but I don't think they fully are taking into account the destruction that they're causing to the game. It could become like wrestling, or boxing or the UFC. SlamBall could come back."
As Kauffman sees it, the group of seven agents that pushed for decertification of the union early and drew a 52-percent line in the sand is equally responsible. Nonetheless, he wondered aloud why union executive director Billy Hunter would allow those agents to have so much sway.
"I saw it in '98-99, and that's the key thing: The agents try to hijack the process," he said. "Billy and [NBA commissioner] David [Stern] have had to deal with these third-party influences and factors and it's very discouraging.
"What I don't understand is that Billy has a couple of years left on a lucrative contract. He's 69 years old and has fought some heavy wars, so he needs to be able to say to those guys, '[Expletive] it.'"
Jerome Stanley, an agent for NFL and NBA players who has worked through three work stoppages in football and now three in basketball, offered a reminder that this struggle is rooted in the pursuit of power. In the wake of 2010 free agents LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh forging their own fate by creating a so-called super team in Miami, owners are pushing for a restrictive system that returns control to their corner.
"They don't want you to go into free agency and make your own decisions," said Stanley, who currently represents Pacers assistant Brian Shaw and previously represented the likes of Baron Davis and Reggie Lewis in basketball and Keyshawn Johnson in football. "They're saying, 'Oh my, that's scary.' And I guess the only way they'll ever get that is to completely break this thing down. But that is what makes this action very dangerous for the owners. They're playing a game of high-stakes chicken.
"You've got to understand that a fundamental premise to their calculation is that 'we'll be able to come back' or else they wouldn't do it. If they're wrong about that, then basically it won't matter what they get from the players. Because you will have gone down in value 40 to 50 percent in arenas, your viewership will go down 40 or 50 percent. Your television advertising dollars will go down, and the networks will say, 'Uh-uh.' Your stadiums, your parking revenues, your concessions, your naming rights, your sponsors -- all those people will say, 'I've got a problem. I'm done with it.' Now what?"
To that end, it was hardly shocking when Miami owner Micky Arison let it be known via Twitter that he is, in so many words, ready to make a deal. His recent series of tweets landed him a $500,000 fine from the NBA and revealed publicly what the union has said all along privately: that not all of the owners are holding the hard-line position. Still, small-market and mid-market owners alike seem willing to sacrifice part or even all of the season to land the deal they want.
"This deal evolved to a point where Stern himself may have realized that it was more than fair," Kauffman continued. "But now he can't rein in some of the outliers. And I don't think the outliers are seeing the big picture. I just think the game is being damaged to an incredible degree."
Unfortunately for fans who want the lockout to end sooner rather than later, we won't know the scope of the damage until after it's been done.