Less than two decades after James Naismith invented basketball, he attended a game between Kansas and Missouri and was appalled when he saw Rule No. 5 of his Thirteen Original Rules of Basketball being violated.
That rule calls for, “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking,” because the premise of basketball was that it would be a non-contact sport. Even by 1910, however, players were doing what comes natural, gleefully banging into each other like a bunch of early-day Charles Oakleys and it was ugly. Naismith was not amused.
“Oh, my gracious,” the good doctor said, “they are murdering my game.”
For 149 days in 2011, NBA fans could relate. The game of basketball was healthy – in colleges, Europe, Asia and other outposts. But NBA owners and players were shouldering, tripping and striking each other as they fought over $4.2 billion in revenue and threatened to murder a season.
The celebration of the settlement has been universal but, as always, there’s more to it because negotiations are simply another part of competition. While lawyers for both sides work on the language of the new agreement so that training camps can begin Dec. 9, everyone else is focused on who won and who lost. And in sports, that is important. It’s not enough to have labor peace, we absolutely must know who got the better of whom.
Opinions have been consistent with most analysts – well, make that all I have read – awarding a technical knockout to the owners. The players are getting a lower percentage of the revenue than before, contracts are shorter and controls are tighter.
It is not my nature to be cynical – I do, for instance, believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the virtues of non-alcoholic beer – but the judgments sound very much like those from 1999 and 2005 when owners were declared the victors immediately upon the completion of negotiations. One agent quoted anonymously in 1999 said union boss Billy Hunter “got killed” by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Yet it is that 1999 agreement, which included an individual maximum salary and a rookie wage scale, that led the owners to claiming monstrous losses in recent years.
So now, for the third consecutive collective bargaining agreement, the owners are winners. At least that’s what is speculated.
But did the players really lose? Yes, their percentage of BRI decreased from 57 to 51 percent but from a fairness standpoint, isn’t that what it should have been anyway? Isn’t that a good deal?
This time, the players were victims of the owners’ previous ineptitude. The truth is players hammered owners in negotiations the last two times, and the cost had become so substantial that the owners had to do something about restoring at least a measure of financial sanity. At least that’s what they told us.
But the players still have it very good. They have perhaps the finest playing and traveling conditions of any set of workers in the world. They play in the best arenas, travel in private chartered jets, stay mostly at five-star hotels and despite salaries that average in seven figures, they get $110 a day meal money to help out when they are on the road.
In describing the deal to players, Hunter obviously put the most positive spin on it.
“Even though players took a reduced percentage of BRI,” Hunter wrote in the letter first obtained by Sam Amick of SI.com., “no player contract will be rolled back, the minimum salary and rookie wage scales will not decrease, and the 2011-12 salary cap and luxury tax threshold will be no lower than it was last season. To give some perspective, by year 7 of the agreement, the luxury tax threshold is projected to reach approximately $90 million.”
Hunter also projected the averaged NBA salary will be $8 million per player by the end of the agreement. As former Atlanta Hawks executive Stan Kasten told Bloomberg.com, NBA players “still are going to have the highest average salary of any group of workers ever in history, including all of sports. It’s not going to go down.”
When figures in the billions are being tossed around, however, we start to get casual about it. Consider one aspect of the new agreement – teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold cannot use the mid-level exception. In the last agreement, players could get a five-year contract worth a max of $37 million from any team over the cap, irrespective of where they stood in relation to the luxury tax.
Under new rules, they can get no more than a three-year deal worth about $10 million from any team that trespasses into luxury tax land.
Is it less than before? Obviously. Lest we forget, however, if you take $10 million and divide it by 50 years, that’s $200,000 a year. And that’s not including investing it and getting simple interest.
In real life, life in the NBA is good.
But count on labor peace lasting six years. Despite increased revenue sharing, the big market teams will still have the most money. Take the Lakers. As Mark Heisler pointed out yesterday, the Lakers will continue to be active as their annual profit soars to $150-170 million. Even as the luxury tax increases, the Lakers will not be reluctant to pay it because they have a 20-year, $3 billion TV contract.
So the tax to win a title is $60 million instead of $30 million? No problem. Let’s go to the TV bank account.
Ultimately, I believe, something as unforeseen as 2010-11 was in 1999 will happen. I have no idea what it will be, but the disparity in revenue in a sport so dependent on one or two great players will continue to exist. Baseball can operate without a salary cap because – as the Yankees can attest – one pitcher or one hitter or even several of each do not guarantee a title.
A quarterback in football can obviously make a big difference, yet Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson have been Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Enough said.
When a player like LeBron James leaves and Cleveland goes from 61 to 19 victories, the importance of a small market being able to retain or attract a premier free agent is significantl. And it seems doubtful that will change in this agreement.
Regardless, we should enjoy the NBA and the next six years, even though we know labor peace is not permanent. At the end of it, at least one of the parties will opt out. And my bet is that it will be the owners. As we found out in these negotiations, when it comes to financial shouldering, holding pushing, tripping or hitting, no one does it like they do.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. His columns appear every Tuesday on SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.