We’ve asked five of the most knowledgeable minds covering the NBA’s labor dispute to weigh in on some key issues surrounding the current lockout.
Larry Coon: Covers labor issues for ESPN.com
John Lombardo: NBA reporter, SportsBusiness Journal
Ken Berger: NBA reporter for CBSSports.com
Darren Rovell: CNBC sports business reporter
David Aldridge: NBA.com and TNT reporter
WHEN WILL THE LOCKOUT END?
Coon: At least November. Probably January. There’s a very real chance it could cost the whole season.
Lombardo: I think it’s going to be awhile. There are some big philosophical differences that still exist.
Berger: I am predicting Oct. 15. I think that will be the drop dead time for no regular season games to be lost, and ultimately I don’t think either side wants to go down that road.
Rovell: I don’t think we can begin to contemplate the end being near until September 15. We have to get close to missing a game. That’s the first requirement. Leverage only comes when people are close to missing games.
Aldridge: I got a Christmas kind of feeling.
HOW IS THIS WORK STOPPAGE DIFFERENT THAN 1998?
Coon: The issues today are bigger. The league sees its financial system as fundamentally broken and needs to take very big steps to fix it.
Lombardo: The league’s in a different place. Revenues are higher. Players are making more. Owners are spending more.
Berger: The owners are far more entrenched in their position and they have much more far-reaching objectives than they did then.
Rovell: The stakes are similar. In ’98, we had (Michael) Jordan leaving. So there was the same risk in the drop-off in momentum, probably even greater. What’s different is the stakes are higher from a financial perspective because the salaries have gotten higher.
Aldridge: In ’98 they were looking to assure themselves of cost certainty. Now they’re trying to assure themselves of profit certainty. That’s a little harder.
WHICH SIDE CAN LEAST AFFORD A LOST SEASON?
Lombardo: Both sides have a lot to lose.
Berger: Financially, the players. But neither side can afford it from other perspectives in terms of the hit that the sport would take and the time it would take to rebuild the image.
Rovell: There are teams that can’t afford a lost season. Teams that have built momentum like Memphis and Atlanta. And there a players that can’t afford it. But as a whole, it really depends on who wins in the end. That lost season might be worth it for five years of a better system.
Aldridge: Obviously the players have less money to play with than the owners do. The owners will, if not make money, they certainly won’t lose as much money if they don’t play. So the players would be the ones that would suffer more economically for sure.
WHICH SIDE IS RIGHT?
Coon: It’s nuanced. Neither side is entirely right nor entirely wrong.
Lombardo: Owners have their views and players have their ideas. That’s why it’s a negotiation.
Berger: Both are partially wrong. I think the side that is over-reaching in a big way is the owners. They’re trying to force the players to account for the economic downturn and some of their own poor business decisions.
Rovell: Neither. Should the players take responsibility for the growing of basketball related income? I think that’s the essential question.
Aldridge: It’s hard to say. I understand that the owners are spending more money than they would like to, but no one is telling them to do that. On the other hand, the players have to understand that we’re coming out of a very deep recession and there are a lot of people who would love to have a job, much less a job that pays them an average of $5.7 million a year.
ONE THING OWNERS ARE MOST LIKELY TO GIVE UP?
Coon: A hard cap.
Lombardo: Their biggest issue is a hard cap.
Berger: The hard cap. If they can get the salary reductions they’re looking for, it wouldn’t be as important.
Rovell: The request for the back money for the escrow. That or non-guaranteed contracts if they can get one less year on new contracts.
Aldridge: At the end of the day, they will not have a completely hard cap.
ONE THING PLAYERS ARE MOST LIKELY TO GIVE UP?
Coon: The split of the revenue.
Lombardo: They’ve already offered to restructure their salaries.
Berger: Within reason, money.
Rovell: They’d be willing to share some of the owners’ new expenses and reduce their percentage of the pie.
Aldridge: Money first of all. But I think they’ll have to give up at least one of the exceptions that are currently in place.
ONE NON-NEGOTIABLE FOR THE OWNERS?
Coon: The split of the revenue.
Lombardo: How the money is split.
Berger: Keeping the disparity in payroll as wide as it is. They want a much narrower gap between the top paying teams and the lowest paying teams.
Rovell: They’re not going to do a deal without at least a 15 percent rollback in player salaries.
Aldridge: The split of basketball related income. They’re going to have to get around 50-50.
ONE NON-NEGOTIABLE FOR THE PLAYERS?
Coon: A hard cap.
Lombardo: Guaranteed contracts.
Berger: A dramatic pay reduction in the absence of the owners making some sacrifice themselves.
Rovell: Guaranteed contracts. They will not give that up.
Aldridge: They already sort of got it with the guaranteed contracts.
ANY CHANCE PLAYERS AGREE TO A HARD CAP?
Coon: It remains to be seen. The owners are pushing for it. The players are against it. They’re fundamentally and adamantly opposed to the very concept.
Lombardo: Maybe. It would make for a more financially equal league.
Berger: I think they would if they got some concessions on the other issues like guarantees and their share of basketball related income.
Rovell: Probably not. But it depends. Just like any negotiation, each of these factors is driven by what else they get. You sometimes can’t consider these things by themselves.
Aldridge: Anything’s possible. But I would be surprised.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH THE ONE-AND-DONE RULE?
Coon: I think the owners will get their way. I think it will go up a year. Players don’t care as much.
Lombardo: It will be one of many points included in negotiations.
Berger: That’s going to be used as a bargaining chip. The players want to do away with it. I think it’ll be better for the NBA if it goes to two-and-done.
Rovell: I think it’s way too early to tell. That’s going to be part of the negotiations. That’s all the way down the list.
Aldridge: I don’t know that there’s any great groundswell either way. I don’t sense a lot of momentum of going anywhere near a baseball system or a college football system. And I certainly don’t sense any desire to go back to the old system.
WHAT WOULD A HARD CAP MEAN FOR SMALL MARKET TEAMS?
Coon: It will help them. It helps to level off the playing field. The lack of a level playing field now is in the advantage of the big market teams.
Lombardo: Theoretically, their payrolls won’t be dwarfed by teams in larger markets.
Berger: They would probably have to pay more in salary because the minimum would have to come up to make it work. In its simplest form, it makes it easier for smaller markets to compete.
Rovell: The NBA has been trying to sell the idea of competitive balance. If you believe that competitive balance is number of teams winning a title, the NBA is hideous. The question is what a hard cap would do for competitive balance. I think the jury’s out on that.
Aldridge: It’s more about large revenue teams versus small revenue teams. But it would certainly give them a better chance to compete.
DOES THE LEAGUE NEED SOMETHING TO HELP WITH COMPETITIVE BALANCE?
Coon: Absolutely need? No. But the league will be healthier when all 30 teams have an equal shot at competing for a title rather than just the richest teams.
Lombardo: The owners will tell you they need to have a more equitable system on players’ salaries. I think that’s what they would like to eliminate, the haves and have-nots.
Berger: Absolutely. They either need a new way to distribute payroll evenly across teams or local revenue has to be shared. Or both.
Rovell: Can the league do something about it? Or is it a sport that you have five starters and if you get two great ones it’s so much easier to be great. Is there any way to dynasty-proof the NBA? I’m not sure there is.
Aldridge: Yes. I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it is very difficult for teams that don’t generate its own revenue to realistically compete for a championship.
HOW MIGHT A SHORTENED SEASON IMPACT LEVEL OF PLAY?
Coon: As we saw in 1999, a shortened season works to the advantage of the veteran teams that stay together.
Lombardo: I don’t think it will after players get in shape.
Berger: It could make things a little choppier and uglier.
Rovell: I think it depends on what the players are doing in the off-season. In ’99, it did hurt the quality of play because it took 20 games for these guys to get in shape again.
Aldridge: It’s never as good. Everybody says it’s good for the veteran teams, but you always have to play three games in three nights which is not good for veteran teams. There’s good and bad. But I don’t think the quality of play can possibly be as good without a true summer where you can work on your game or a true training camp.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST RISK TO THE LEAGUE?
Coon: Union decertification followed by an anti-trust suit that leaves the two sides in litigation for a long time rather than negotiation.
Lombardo: A lost season and alienating the fans.
Berger: If they lose a season, the owners would be saying they’re willing to give up $1.5 billion in order to prop up teams that are not doing well. They would lose a tremendous amount of money, and the NBA would forfeit all the momentum it has built.
Rovell: I think they lose the momentum that they’ve built up, and they lose the casual fan that they got with LeBron (James) and all the excitement. If they’re set back for a couple of years, that’s not going to be good.
Aldridge: The NBA does not have the historical institutional connection to the American public that baseball has, and it’s not as popular as the NFL is. So when you don’t play games for whatever reason, people don’t understand that and they blame both sides and don’t support you. You risk damaging your brand and a product that people really do like.
MUST FANS WITNESS THIS DISPUTE EVERY FEW YEARS?
Coon: I would love to say no. You always hope you get an agreement that works for both sides so that by the time the agreement is up it’s a no-brainer to extended it. But it seems like that’s never the case.
Lombardo: It all depends on the length of the collective bargaining agreement.
Berger: I don’t think players are going to agree to a 10-year deal. The longest they’ve shown a willingness to go is six. When the current deal was ratified in 2005, the owners thought it was a great deal for them. So you never can tell. It’ll be at least a five-year CBA.
Rovell: Yes. It’s just the state of business. I think it’s the state of business in every sport given the stakes.
Aldridge: I hope not. You would like to think that people would understand that this is not something we can keep doing and they figure out a system.