The NBA lockout has been such a depressing topic that I’ve tried not to think or talk about basketball since the draft in June. Maybe coincidentally I haven’t played much recently either and while the frequency of my playing has varied over the years, I’m definitely not pumped about basketball right now. By now I was hoping to be writing about the endless exciting possible lineups of the rebuilt once again Washington Wizards, but instead we are a week away from the season’s normal starting time with the players and the owners stuck at impasse. We could face months without professional basketball if not lose a full season if the two sides cannot come to an agreement soon.
The fundamental problem is that the owners are claiming they are not making money in the current economic climate and want to change the business model of the league. What they want from the players is a 50/50 split in total revenue over ten years. This may sound like a fair deal, but that would mean the players come down from their 56% piece of the pie they agreed to in the last negotiation. Some people will just say, it’s tough times and the players make too much money already, and they should just take the deal, get back the work and be thankful they get paid for doing what they do.
I disagree with this sentiment to an extent. I think the players should come down from the last deal, and they have agreed to go down to 53% already, but there are other factors involved. One is that the NBA is a more player-driven league than any other major professional sports league. In football and hockey, the players wear helmets. In baseball and soccer, the fields are so big the players look pretty anonymous from the stands and on television. Basketball players are by far the most visible because there are the fewest players on the smallest playing surface, indoors and under lights, wearing the least amount of clothes and covering. It has always been a star-driven league and sport and always will be.
Also the 50% proposed is not quite 50%. Both sides have to pay taxes on their earnings to the government, of course, but the owners receive that as profit of a major business and can thus write off major expenses. So, the total amount of revenue received by the actual parties will tip in the owners favor. Plus, as we learned from the now forgotten NFL lockout, if the NBA owners strike a deal that would appear to be drastically favorable to them objectively by the finance community, their franchises will rise in value giving them more gain to their net worth over the players.
I am mostly on the players’ side on this issue, but I do have one message to Billy Hunter, NBA player union boss: don’t compare the owners locking out the players to the plight of the American people during our ongoing series of recessions. I heard him say on the Bill Simmons’ BS report (http://www.grantland.com/podcasts) that the players make a few bucks during their career but still live another forty years or so after and even with making the best investments they will all eventually run out of money. He went on to say that the players are standing up for principles and are fighting the global battle of the little guy getting pushed around by the big guy, a little harder to swallow when the “little guy” is over seven feet tall.
Sorry Billy, but a lot of this is due to the extravagant lifestyles led by the players. The league median salary is $2.3 million, so even average players make the kind of money that can set your family up for generations if you make smart decisions and bank enough money to make interest on your cash. Say you’re doing it for the players who fought for these deals before you, like those who threatened to not play in the 1964 All-Star Game if the league continued to not recognize the first players’ union (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_NBA_All-Star_Game). Say you’re doing it to ensure that you don’t send a bad precedent for the players to come after you. What you should not do is make yourselves out to be hero’s of the common man, while millions of us common men and women are struggling to get by while you guys are sitting on your progressively getting fatter asses refusing to play basketball. On second thought, fuck it, let’s #OccupyNBA bitches.
Unfortunately, the league owners will not budge from their 50/50 ten year offer and seem prepared to deprive us of a year of basketball. This comes at a terrible time. Last year was the greatest basketball season of my memory. There was the meteoric rise of Blake Griffin, break out seasons from Team USA World Championship participants Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and MVP Derrick Rose. There was a number of terrible but entertaining to watch teams like the Warriors and my Wizards. There was a great playoff run that included the Grizzlies’ eight versus one seed upset of the Spurs. And the season ended with Dirk Nowitski lifting the trophy over the universally hated outside of South Beach Heat. There was a level of talent and competition last season in the NBA that I had never seen before.
However, I also paid a lot more attention to the NBA than I ever had before. I was living in Guangzhou, China for all of last season. Even there, I was able to follow basketball as closely as I wanted and able to play basketball as much as I liked, living in a city of almost twenty million people in hoop-crazy China.
It’s difficult to really relate how popular the NBA is in China. There were always pickup games to play in on courts throughout the city, and being tall and white, I could always get in on the action. Students in my classes in China wore NBA merchandise and jerseys MORE than the kids that I’ve taught in America. There were live games on every morning on GZ Sports. I was actually in a fantasy basketball league with all the guys that worked at the NBA studio show and I smoked them all! Don’t believe me? I'll post the screen shot on Twitter @samthemantis. I’m good friends with one of their former NFL analysts, Ning Jiang, shout out to Ning, expecting a baby with his fiancé, alias Vicki, formerly known as MiuMiu, real Chinese name unknown. Ning was one of the only people in a city of 20 million that could speak English, Cantonese, and Football.
Anyway, one of the things I miss most about China is waking up in the morning to games being on TV. It makes you feel almost ok about that first morning beer, and the second and third are always much easier. The game cast was in Chinese, I know a remarkable amount of basketball vocabulary, very useful on the play grounds, but for any language barrier that prevented me from consuming basketball, the internet was there. I followed sports closely than ever before last year because living in a new country, everything was strange to me at first and sports were something familiar and accessible. And the NBA was extremely so.
The players should have a bigger share of this internet and foreign income because they are more responsible for it than the money coming in from ticket sales or local television rights contracts. Players might be smart to give away even more than the 50/50 split if it buys them greater investment in the new revenue streams such as NBA League Pass, online content and foreign markets. If the players give away enough guaranteed dollars to satisfy the owners, the owners would give up a greater portion of these growing revenue streams in the future to the players. The teams can change the economic model of the league and become viable, profit-making businesses on a team-by-team level and the players could end up with the better deal in the future, with their greater stake in the way people are choosing to consume the product today and tomorrow.
Ideally, such a system could even reward players who draw the most clicks, YouTube views, Google searches, etc. but then people would be concerned that players will be too out for themselves in a sport where there will always be a delicate balance between being an individual, a team player and a ball hog. But, what if the TEAMS that are most showcased on TV networks in other countries, that sell the most total jerseys worldwide, that have the most views on NBA League Pass, that are generating the most attention for the league online and abroad, are given a larger percentage of this money that they helped earn for non-traditional channels?
Not surprisingly, the most popular teams among my jersey-buying, NBA-watching Chinese students were the Lakers, Heat and Rockets, because of Yao, their star. Star power brings the teams into China. Many of Yao’s lesser known teammates got shoe or commercial deals in China because of the team’s overall popularity. So, the team does benefit even if the stars are the initial draw, and, in turn, the league will benefit as well. However, the primary source of this money is the players’ appeal and they should receive a greater share of it. Players would have the potential to make more money than before in such a system and would have to bear some responsibility in the event that they don’t.
You have here a system where the owners pay smaller salaries to the players and keep a larger piece of the conventional pie giving them a chance to make profit on their investment and all players would have a flat bonus for their part money coming in from new sources with more incentives tied to how much attention and money their team brought to the NBA, AND this percentage would be partially determined by how popular the TEAM is (which usually translates to how good they are) so the players will have extra monetary investment in the team’s success.
And not only does my plan make sense, but it would be a huge public relations hit as well for both sides. The players look like they are making concessions and adapting to the economic realities everyone else is facing, while the owners look good for recognizing how important the players are to the league by giving them a real stake in its future success.