NBA Players Could Take Leverage Away From Owners in Labor Negotiations by Forming New League


NBA Players Could Take Leverage Away From Owners in Labor Negotiations by Forming New LeagueIt just keeps getting uglier.

We're four months into this mess, and the NBA and its players seem to only be growing farther apart.

After there was talk last week for the umpteenth time that a deal was "within striking distance," the owners and union are back to end-of-days language and attacking each other through the media.

Players Association chief Billy Hunter wrote in a letter to members Tuesday, "They have given us 'take it or leave it' ultimatums, threatened to end the season prematurely, reached out to players in an attempt to divide us, misled the press, and pre-conditioned further talks on our acceptance of significant concessions."

On Friday, commissioner David Stern nonchalantly announced he's cancelling all games through November, then issued a threat to players.

"We're going to have to recalculate how bad the damage is," Stern said of the cancellations. "The next offer will reflect the extraordinary losses that are piling up."

(That's an interesting argument to make, considering Stern and the owners have insisted they lose money during the season. But we'll return to that later.)

What's most bizarre about the ongoing battle between the two sides is how little they're fighting over: $100 million. That's it. The players want 52.5 percent of total league revenue; the owners want a 50-50 split.

Otherwise, multiple outlets are reporting the two sides have agreed in principle to most of the rest of the terms: a stiffer luxury tax, shorter contract lengths, smaller annual raises and an "amnesty clause" for bad contracts, among other changes.

It would seem, then, that we could be close to a complete deal.

That would ignore a very real concern: All the above changes constitute concessions from the players, and they might not be willing to give more.

Under the previous collective bargaining agreement:

  • Players were guaranteed 57 percent of basketball-related income (BRI). They've come down to 52.5.
  • Players with "Bird" rights could sign six-year contracts. They've agreed to reduce that to five.
  • Players were eligible for annual raises of up to 10.5 percent. Now it'd be 5 percent, under this yet-to-be signed deal.
  • Players could make $5.8 million under the mid-level exception. Drop that to $5 million.
  • Players were paid on-time and in-full if a team waived them. Now owners would be allowed to stretch out their payments to waived over a number of years.

That's a lot of give and not much take from the perspective of the players — which will make it all the more difficult for the owners to convince the union to concede that last $100 million.

Why the almost completely one-sided concessions so far? Two reasons: First, some owners really were losing money, which makes their demands for a greater share of the pie more reasonable; and secondly, the owners are already far wealthier than most of the players, they own the leverage.

If the players are serious about holding their ground over that $100 million, they could grab some of that leverage by forming their own league.

It’s not a new idea. New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire posed the possibility in October, noting the players had already discussed it.

No doubt, it's a down-the-line, incredibly complex option. You'd need the support of certain superstars, like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who are owed tens of millions of dollars in the coming years. You'd need investors, venues, TV deals, advertisers. It could take years to become profitable.

But it's not completely unthinkable. Nike's recent "Basketball Never Stops" campaign would suggest there's enough interest out there from big-name advertisers who still need a way to sell their products. As the recent charity games have demonstrated, smaller venues, like college arenas, would be pretty easy to line up. And I have to imagine the networks would be tripping over themselves to air those players-owned games.

If nothing else, it's a bargaining chip if the owners continue to stand firm at 50-50. With all the nastiness flying back and forth between the two sides, after all, the only leverage the players really possess is their talent.

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