NBA Players Should Heed NHL

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - August 10, 2011
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NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter isn’t putting his money on the under for the number of games likely to be missed this season.

Hunter is a pragmatic man. Unlike the NFL lockout, where unimaginable revenue and the league’s overall financial strength virtually guaranteed a pre-season settlement, the NBA is in a much different situation. To weakly paraphrase former Texas Sen. Lloyd Benson, I know the NFL, and you, sirs, are no NFL.

The two sides have made the usual moves. The Players Association has discussed decertification while the NBA has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the union with unfair labor practices arguing the players have refused to negotiate in good faith and that the decertification talk is an illegal attempt to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the league.

If all this sounds familiar, it should, they are the same steps taken by the NFLPA and the NFL. But that’s where the similarities end.

The league that James Naismith gave birth to is a second-tier member of the U.S. Big Four. Football obviously rules the roost and Major League Baseball still pulls in 50 million in attendance in tough economic times. The NBA is now on par with the National Hockey League in terms of attendance, and owners are looking at that league, and not the NFL, as a source of economic inspiration.

In 2005 the NHL adopted a scorched earth policy that cost the struggling league an entire season and forced it from its cozy ESPN contract and onto Versus, more commonly known as the what-channel-is-that-on? network. It was a desperate move for a league that was too big and whose Third World distribution of wealth put the NHL on the verge of economic collapse. Ratings and attendance suffered upon its return, but what emerged was a league finally able to operate within its means. The players are still handsomely rewarded, though not as much as before, and the salary cap created competitive parity, which generated greater fan interest and a firmer financial footing for the owners.

Six of those NHL owners own NBA teams, and their experience is pushing the current negotiations.

The league claims 22 of the 30 teams lost money. Faced with similar inequalities, the NHL managed to overcome the disparity by establishing a more equitable split of revenue between players and owners, and by instituting a salary cap. The NBA’s “flex cap” has been a disaster and has only created more wealth for the already wealthy. It needs to be hardened. The current 57-43 revenue split between players and owners has not kept up with rising player salaries and a more equal split is necessary.

Both sides have dug in and each is waiting for the other to blink. That is not going to happen anytime soon, but with a successful example at the ready, the question is will the NBA follow the NHL over the cliff before it realizes Gary Bettman actually got this one right.

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