Occupy the NBA: How the Lockout is Like OWS

There’s more to the NBA lockout than billionaires and millionaires squabbling over percentage points of a multi-billion dollar pie.

After five months of one-sided “negotiations”, the owners have received an unprecedented amount of concessions. The reason the NBA season is still on the precipice is a small fraction of owners who aren’t satisfied with a 90% victory.

Indeed, the NBA lockout is a perfect example of the frustrations driving Occupy Wall Street.

The lockout is not being driven by a growth in player salaries. The league has grown steadily over the last decade while salaries have been capped at 57% of revenue. Had non-player expenses (adjusted for inflation) remained constant from 1999 to 2010, the NBA would have made a record profit last season.

Instead, a new generation of owners have bought into the league in the last decade, many with a net worth barely more than the value of their franchises. They are over-leveraged, and now that their debt payments have soared in the aftermath of the economic collapse, they are looking for the players to bail them out.

Even if a deal is reached, the players will likely be taking an across-the-board 9% pay cut in order to cover their owners’ poor investment decisions even though their industry has steadily grown at 4% a year in the middle of a recession.

It is hard to have sympathy for grown men getting paid fortunes to play a children’s game, but the money the league generates isn’t going to charity otherwise. Instead, it’s lining the pockets of owners like Dan Gilbert, who made his fortune selling adjustable-rate mortgages to people who didn’t need them, and Donald Sterling, who made a concerted effort to rid his rental properties of black families.

Many players aren’t earning anything close to their free-market value because there isn’t a free market for American basketball players. In contrast to their European counterparts, NBA players are subject to an age limit, a rookie draft, and a maximum salary.

Because of the NBA’s monopoly on professional basketball, these measures would be anti-trust violations if they weren’t collectively bargained. But there’s a strong temptation for ownership, who naturally have deeper pockets, to leverage that advantage unfairly in negotiations, which is why FDR created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1934.

The owners waited months to come to the bargaining table, trying to use missing monthly paychecks as leverage while negotiating a 10-year deal. The players filed a complaint with the NLRB months ago, but the NLRB is operating with only a two-member quorum, as Senate Republicans have prevented the board from having its full complement of members since 2007.

The players' only other option would be to decertify the union and bargain for themselves individually. But when the NFL players tried that earlier this year, the owners were able to tie it up in court, a process which could take years to unfold while effectively ending the short-lived careers of many players.

In effect, the players have been completely powerless in these negotiations, despite being responsible for the majority of the NBA’s popularity and revenue.

In theory, ownership supplies the necessary capital to run a business, which is why they are entitled to a large share of the profits. But a modern stadium is a critical component of any NBA franchise, and taxpayers have been the ones supplying the capitol to build those, despite most research indicating they create little to no economic value.

To pay for these stadiums, municipalities often issue bonds that take 25-30 years to mature. A lack of revenue from NBA games this year would create a budget shortfall cities have to fill. Memphis, after spending $250 million on the Grizzlies’ FedEx Forum in 2002, could lose $11 million over the course of the bond, a problem for a city undergoing a massive budget crisis that’s forced it to lay off hundreds of teachers.

The owners aren’t even endangering public services in an effort to remain profitable; the players have already conceded far more than the owners’ largely fictitious $340 million loss from last season. A 50/50 split of basketball-revenue would give players an extra $3.3 billion dollars over the next decade.

In a broader sense, the lockout isn’t that different from the Wall Street bailouts of 2008: A few people who got rich profiting off public investments made a series of poor business decisions that left them over-leveraged, and rather than take the losses themselves, they frantically tried to force someone else to cover for them by using hostages — the NBA season, commercial bank lending.

What’s scariest of all is the sense of inevitably surrounding the whole proceedings. For many fans frustrated with the lockout, the bottom line is simple: The owners have a lot more money so they are going to win. Why delay the inevitable?

And if that’s what the U.S. has become, then so be it. But that’s not what my mother signed up for when she immigrated here to leave a third world country where justice had been completely distorted by the vast concentrations of wealth in the upper 1% of the population.

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby