Why Cry For the NBA?

After months of contentious labor negotiations, the 2011-12 NBA season can now officially begin. This past Saturday, representatives from the NBA and the Players Association arrived at a tentative agreement to end the lockout and to begin play on Christmas Day. What makes this sudden agreement all the more remarkable is that it comes on the heels of NBA Commissioner David Stern’s dire proclamation that the league potentially faced a “nuclear winter” that threatened not only this current season but subsequent ones as well. Little does Stern realize how prophetic that statement may yet prove.

When you take into account how poorly (and publically) the negotiations were handled along with the prevailing national mood towards the nation’s privileged elite, the NBA may have done irreparable damage to their brand. For the diehards, the lockout assuredly left a sour taste in their mouths, but their allegiance to the league is more or less assured. There are certainly no guarantees, however, that Commissioner Stern and Co. will be able to corral casual fans so easily.

While details about the deal reached between the owners and the players remain sketchy, it was clearly in the best interests of both parties to quickly resolve their dispute or further risk the wrath of frustrated hoops fans. For the uninitiated, the economic issues at play in this recent NBA lockout may seem esoteric. Put simply, the dispute essentially boils down to this: The owners, particularly those who own teams in small media markets, maintain that they have been losing money and want cost certainty, while the players want the current profligate system to continue, arguing that their salaries are dictated by the market set by the owners.

A related concern was how Basketball Related Income (or BMI) would be divvied up amongst the two parties; previously the players accrued 57% of BMI, a figure the owners reportedly deemed too high and wanted reduced to 39%. (Players Association head Billy Hunter has since confirmed that under the current agreement players will receive 51.2% of BMI.) Watching millionaires squabble with billionaires over relatively small slices of the shared financial pie can be a distasteful sight even in the best of times. So in these tough economic times, when the national unemployment rate has hovered around 9% for the past several months, a protracted sports lockout motivated primarily by excessive greed is difficult for many to stomach.

In addition, there are societal factors at play that makes this lockout seem especially egregious: the aforementioned unemployment rate, dissatisfaction towards politicians perceived to be in bed with big business, and the advent of the OWS movement that has made “We are the 99%” a rallying cry for the disaffected poor and middle classes. As far as the players and the owners are concerned, the financial impact of the lockout will be minimal at best. Even a month of missed games will do little to dent their bottom line. If only the same could be said for the ticket-takers, arena security, ushers, and other arena personnel who lost much needed income as a result of the lockout.

Ultimately, we the fans must also be held accountable for helping to create this monster. We loyally support the players, regardless of their virtues or lack thereof, merely because they wear the colors of our favorite team. We buy the tickets, watch the games, and wear the officially licensed apparel, despite the knowledge that the owners are gouging us at every turn. We played a role in making the lockout possible by allowing David Stern, Billy Hunter, and other associated figures to believe that that they could negotiate indefinitely in the conviction that we fans would be bereft without the NBA. But with a month or so of pro basketball already by the boards, we realize, now more than ever, that the loyalty and patronage we have shown the league was never going to be reciprocated. Once the games begin, we will likely forgive the NBA for what they put us through over the past few months. But it will take a lot more than the league is willing to offer for us to forget.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison