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Readers vent about lockout


My column Friday comparing the disaffected fans of the NBA to the Occupy Wall Street movement struck a nerve with a lot of readers. Here are some of your responses:

• Professional sports in general are something to behold. How did employees become partners with owners? Who cares how much a boss makes? Do you demand to look at the books of your employer before you decide if they are paying you enough? In all my working life, I took jobs that paid me what I thought I was worth. If the money wasn't there, I went and found a job that paid me what I wanted or at least close to it. There are many more important issues in life than worrying about who makes what in an entertainment venue such as basketball. If they play, fine; if they don't play, that's fine also. There is always football, hockey, soccer and baseball, as well as myriad other sports to fill my time.-- Franz Centennial, Colo.

Pro sports in America is a unique business. The owners and players formed a partnership with each other to save the NBA in the early 1980s, when the league was on the verge of insolvency. Their partnership resulted in a new drug-testing policy and the invention of the salary cap, both firsts for the major American leagues.

Partnership is a good thing for pro sports: There would be no NBA lockout if a sense of partnership existed today. All of the leagues need that spirit of working together because the players are the product. The NBA players now believe strongly that the owners are treating them like employees rather than partners; the owners believe just as strongly that the players need to help provide the franchises with access to profitability, for the health of owners and players alike.

Someone finally said it. The source of the $4 billion that the owners/players are fighting over comes directly or indirectly from the fans (consumers). Yet, there is an air of entitlement, particularly from the players, that makes their "concern" for the fans ring so hollow. Frankly, I believe the system does need fixing. It is far more paramount than short-term financial impact. The players should be careful with the resolve of the owners and particularly the fans, who are the ones actually providing the underlining financing for the entire enterprise.-- James, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The difficult part of this is that each side -- owners as well as players -- believes it is making a stand for reasons of principle as well as for the good of the sport, and that's on top of the financial gain each is seeking. Add money to principle and you wind up with a situation in which both sides are blinded to the larger damage they're doing.

Thanks for this article that expresses my frustration with the lockout. I am an avid basketball fan (a Lakers fan) and it's hard for me to feel very sorry for either party, especially when their stubborness is affecting many "little guys'" jobs as well as rippling through the restaurant, hotel and other industries in these already stressful economic times. My son's business is affected by this lockout. The patience of fans is running out! Your article speaks for many of us.-- JlSeals, Los Angeles

Your piece on "fan frustration" hit this issue rather dead-on. As an NBA "lurker" since the '99 lockout, I despise the arrogance that this group puts out as to the constant bickering. I also run an Oakland Raiders fan page and all 27 members echo this sentiment -- if they want to strike or have a work stoppage, go ahead. Just don't look for us in the stands because we are not coming back.-- Chad, Windsor, Conn.

Thanks very much to both of you. You've touched on one of the biggest dangers for the NBA -- that a number of fans may not be there to greet the league when it returns.

I have been waiting for someone to write on this point of view. I've been close to losing interest in the league for a while now, and this latest episode will make it that much more of a stretch for me to part with my money to line the pockets of players.-- Gregory McKinney, Texas

You're referring to another concern for the league -- the issue of fans who make financial sacrifices to support the NBA. In the months ahead, will fans like you realize that you prefer to keep the money in your pocket rather than spend it on basketball? Because of this lockout, the NBA is both raising that question and forcing you to answer it. The league may not like your answer.

How can union executive director Billy Hunter say that the players are willing to give back the owners enough to break even on their losses when most good business plans are based on "profits"? Where are the sports heroes (models) that we had when we were young and need more today than ever?-- Mark Livermore, Calif.

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There are a couple of complications here. For starters, the players don't believe the owners are losing as much money as they claim. Second, the owners are trying to make the case -- in agreement with your point of view -- that they should be enabled to make a profit, rather than simply being happy to break even. At the heart of the disagreement is a feeling from the union that the owners have mismanaged their franchises and now, instead of holding themselves accountable to be more responsible in their decision-making, they want to grab money back from the players.

There is some truth in each side's view. The players are right to criticize a lot of teams for mismanagement, and of course the owners have every right to seek profitability.

I agree with your article, but I wanted to point out one thing. When you say the NBA is a league that uses public funds to build its arenas, do you realize it is unfair singling them out as if they were the only ones doing that? Most of those buildings are shared with NHL teams (who, in some cases, are the main tenants) or with college hoops teams and other sports as well, so those leagues benefit from public funding themselves. Let's not dupe readers into believing the NBA's the only one doing that because, clearly, it's not. Your point would be more correct if those buildings were NBA-only arenas and didn't host any other events outside pro ball.-- Andrea

Thanks, Andrea. I don't think I was trying to dupe anyone. Actually, I was referring to the potential of lawsuits against the NBA by the cities of Memphis and Orlando, who have been investigating whether to try to recoup arena monies that will be lost during the lockout.

I respectfully disagree about the league fearing outrage. They'd probably welcome it, as what they really fear is apathy. It's obvious that American sports fans haven't cared about the NBA lockout to even half the degree that they did the NFL version. Maybe that will change once football is over, but probably not. The NBA has become a niche sport that casual sports fans only watch during the playoffs anyway.-- J.D., Denver, N.C.

I don't know about the NBA's being a niche sport. It isn't nearly as popular as the NFL with U.S. fans, but the NBA generates $4 billion per year and it has a global following, giving it arguably the strongest long-term future among the U.S. sports leagues. Do you think the NFL or Major League Baseball has a realistic chance of growing its business in China or India?

I do agree that apathy is the biggest threat of all. In fact, I wrote that exactly on the night the NBA canceled the first two weeks of the season.

With owners and players having trouble with some of the non-basketball-related-income issues such as exceptions and guarantees, why not consider a new approach? Do you think the league and players would consider keeping exceptions but limit the contract length when an exception is used? Maybe if the mid-level exception had a maximum contract length of one or two years, it would help limit some of the mistakes owners make with it.-- Rob, Hamilton, Ontario

You are on the right track, Rob. They've been discussing shortened exceptions to limit the impact of the inevitable mistakes in judgment. But the exceptions serve as a fringe issue compared to concerns on both sides for revenue splits and soft-vs.-hard cap systems.

• I wish the NBA players would look at Major League Baseball and how disinterested the average fan is in the World Series at the moment. I believe a lot of this derives from the fact that during the regular season most fans of "small-market" teams lose interest about halfway through the MLB season because our teams simply can't spend as much money as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers (or name any of the teams that made the playoffs this year). Granted, you have the anomaly that is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; however, it happens only occasionally. How long until the NBA players realize that this soft-cap system, the superstars wanting to play together and big-market teams outspending the smaller-market teams will hurt the NBA as a whole in the long run? All they have to do is look at MLB and how little interest there is in the World Series too see the future of the NBA should they continue the current structure.-- Jason, Columbus, Ohio

That's an interesting point. I don't know what accounts for the indifference to the World Series. But in some ways the NBA has been an anomaly to the ideal of parity. I've written about this before, that the NBA is most popular nationally when it's led by a few "super" teams like the Lakers, Celtics or Bulls, featuring star power and deep rosters.

There is a lot of talk about the players fighting to retain a soft cap, but what it really comes down to is their goal of keeping guaranteed contracts. They believe a hard cap will be the death of those guarantees for most players. That is the "blood issue" as defined by Hunter.

Your sentiments about players and owners being detached from the fans who patronize their business are dead-on. And it doesn't just exist in basketball -- we've seen similar attitudes in the recent NFL lockout, and MLB is no different. I, for one, don't particularly care if the NBA cancels this year, next year or disbands altogether, and I know other basketball fans with similar sentiments. Moreover, the image of the NBA today is not the image of the Magic-Bird era, the Jordan era or the Celtics' dynasty era. Even if the lockout ends tomorrow, there will be a nontrivial negative residual effect not just on the NBA, but for American professional sports in general. This may well be a tipping point, for I pity the next (NBA) owner who cries poverty to his city council or state legislature looking for a public handout to finance the playpen of his dreams.-- Dennis, Henderson, Nev.

I couldn't agree more. The times are changing. The NBA and other leagues have enjoyed exponential growth for almost four decades, and now they may need to enact a different approach because they've created a sophisticated and increasingly skeptical audience.