The Players Are Bearing the Risk of the NBA’s Comeback Plan

If players hold the key for the NBA to continue making money, then they’re right to make sure each and every single one of their concerns is being taken seriously.
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The NBA’s back-to-action plan hit somewhat of a snag late last week, when multiple reports indicated at least some percentage of players were raising their eyebrows at the theme park bubble proposal, with concerns ranging from their health to the campus environment to the unrest around the country over police brutality. While it may be difficult to sort out each individual player’s motivations or how significant of a holdup all of this really is, one thing is pretty clear—the risk of the planned restart is falling largely on the players, both now and in the future.

The biggest motivator for both the players and owners to get back on the court is money. Both sides are taking a hit from the loss of revenue caused by the season suspension back in March. Moving forward, the scales seem to be tilted in favor of the owners, however. Players can either come back and play in the Orlando “bubble,” or if they don’t, the expectation is the league will hammer them in the next collective bargaining agreement.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Already, the NBA and NBPA have to negotiate a long list of financial and competitive items to account for the loss of revenue, but agents expect that the league would react to the cancellation of this season by blowing up the CBA, locking out the players and moving to implement a more unfavorable financial share of basketball-related income, which is now essentially a 50-50 split.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks:

Basically, the ability to generate revenue for the league falls almost entirely on the players’ willingness to, uh, play, but if they don’t, the league can shred their current collective bargaining agreement and demand an even bigger piece of the income pie in the next one. I’m no economics expert, but if the league’s path to generating income relies so much more on the players than the owners, and if the league can make money even by simply playing games in empty arenas at a theme park, shouldn’t it be the players getting a bigger share?

This is why I found Kyrie Irving’s decision to tap on the brakes last week interesting. Even if Irving doesn’t want to completely stop the league from coming back, I do believe players, through collective action, have a little more leverage at this exact moment than they would normally. If Irving’s pushback against the league’s comeback plan results in more robust commitments from owners to social justice causes, or even just improves conditions for players in the bubble, then it will have been a masterstroke.

The problem is what happens if the season doesn’t resume. Again, the baseline assumption is that owners would use that scenario to take more money away from players in future seasons. For all the talk about Adam Silver being a players’ commissioner and his friendly relationship with the game’s biggest stars, it wouldn’t exactly be a progressive portrayal of Silver and the owners if they used players not wanting to come back during a pandemic and civil uprising to squeeze every last dollar out of them. It sounds like the league is prepared to play hardball if guys don’t want to come back, no matter how taxing the situation could be in Orlando.

Of course, this isn’t an easy situation for any party involved. Owners have been paying players through the season suspension despite the lost revenue, and guys getting paid indefinitely while there is no basketball isn’t feasible. If basketball doesn’t come back in any capacity, that also means a hit for arena workers, training staffs, and a host of other people who don’t have much of a voice in these negotiations. And sorting out issues like sponsorship deals, national television contracts, or regional sports networks are another massive looming headache.

But all of these concerns come back to players getting on the floor. Tillman Fertitta can open as many Bubba Gumps as he wants, the Rockets won’t be generating dollars in the foreseeable future unless James Harden is pulling up from three. Which is why Irving and whoever else is concerned about the restart are right to pause and consider the situation from every angle. Silver and the owners aren’t being asked to live in an Orlando hotel for over three months. They won’t be taking part in intense physical activity in close quarters under threat of a virus that causes respiratory issues. Meanwhile, there are lots of photos of players taking part in protests, and not as many of team executives. If players hold the key for all these parties to continue making money, then they’re right to make sure each and every single one of their concerns is being taken seriously.

There is no perfect solution here if everyone wants to keep making money. Both the league and players simply holding off until there is a vaccine and everything can return to normal may be the safest possible option, but simply putting the NBA and every contract (player, sponsor, coach, or otherwise) on hold until then would be impossible. Still, if owners are willing to use the threat of the future CBA against players, any players hesitant to restart this season should use whatever leverage they have to make sure their concerns are being addressed.