NEW YORK – We have reached the point of few words and fewer clues as to how and when the NBA lockout will end. One of three things will happen Monday, in no particular order of likelihood:
1) The two sides emerge, say nothing again, and announce that they’re going to continue meeting. A short time later, the first two weeks of the regular season are postponed, rather than canceled, with the possibility that the games could be squeezed in or the season compressed if a deal is reached by Friday.
2) David Stern appears on the sidewalk – in the daylight hours this time – and announces that, unfortunately, the league was unable to reach an agreement with the players and he has no choice but to cancel the first two weeks of the regular season.
3) Stern and union director Billy Hunter emerge together and announce a deal in principle on a new collective bargaining agreement, starting a race against time to get the details ironed out and deal ratified so the season can start on time.
The list of agenda items that stand between here and any of those outcomes is longer than Kevin Durant’s wingspan.
For the second time in recent weeks, the two sides dropped all discussion of the elephant in the room – the BRI split – and focused on system issues only Sunday in a hastily called bargaining session. The last time this happened, the league and union negotiators made little tangible progress on the system issues, and when they returned to the BRI split this past Tuesday, they could not close the gap from the 53 percent the players were offering to the 50 percent where owners had dug in.
Now, while sources say agreement is within reach on adjustments to spending exceptions like the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, a major sticking point is a punitive, laddered luxury tax that players fear will effectively serve as a hard salary cap. When the two sides reconvene at 2 p.m. ET in Manhattan, the job at hand will be monumental: somehow marrying the system issues that remain hotly contested with the BRI split, which is contested at something akin to inferno levels.
What’s most puzzling about how the negotiators got to this point – with no deal and regular season games scheduled to be scrapped by the end of the day – is that in mid-September, Stern acknowledged that the two sides were “on the road” to an agreement on the economics. At that point, the players were believed to have been offering to receive a 54 percent share of BRI – already a $1 billion concession over six years in an effort to address the owners’ stated annual losses of $300 million – while signaling a willingness to make another economic move conditioned on key system aspects remaining intact.
Days later, the owners on Sept. 22 increased their proposed players’ share of BRI from 44 percent to 46 percent on average over the life of a 10-year proposal. The owners inched upward from there in subsequent negotiations – to 48 percent and finally to 50 percent this past Tuesday – while the players made another move to 53 percent, marking roughly equivalent $1.3 billion concessions for each side.
As we learned after Tuesday’s crucial bargaining session, the two sides weren’t exactly stuck at 53 and 50, respectively, for the players. In a small side conference as the talks entered crunch time Tuesday, the owners offered a 49-51 percent range for the players’ share, while the players countered with 51-53. That’s where it ended, and no further negotiations on the BRI split occurred Sunday night.
The impasse leaves open the maddening question: If the two sides were “on the road” to an agreement on the economics in mid-September when the spread was 46-54, how could they be so far apart after the gap was shaved by $1.6 billion this past Tuesday – with the difference between the midpoint of each side’s BRI band being reduced to a mere 2 percentage points (52-50)?
The answer can likely be found in a couple of crucial areas. For one, small-market owners may have dug in hard on the BRI split, insisting they cannot accept a deal in which the teams receive less than 50 percent of revenues without substantially addressing system issues they believe put them at a competitive disadvantage compared to high-revenue, big-spending teams. Second, to the extent that the division of revenues is inexorably linked to the system that determines how the players’ share is delivered, the players could find themselves in a quid-pro-quo position: If they want the system mostly intact, then 50 percent is the best offer they’re going to see. For room to exist for further negotiation on the split, the owners need system adjustments they believe will enhance competitive balance and give teams the flexibility they need to get out from under bad contracts and keep star players from bolting for bigger markets.
All of these moving parts must somehow be tied together Monday – or realistically, by Friday, as long as enough progress and momentum exist. If not, the NBA faces the slippery, dangerous slope of canceled games – which would lead to economic losses each side would then try to recoup in further negotiations, which would lead to more canceled games and, essentially, the Armageddon both sides recognized would be a possibility when the lockout was imposed July.
As Stern said that day, these things tend to take on a life of their own.
Stern was a man of exasperated expressions and few words Sunday night. Though the real 11th hour could be weeks or even months away – the deadline to cancel the entire 1998-99 season wasn’t until Jan. 7, and a deal was reached with hours to spare – Stern may sense that the public tolerance for this lockout is waning and waning fast.
There was no Twitter, no 60-second news cycle, no All-Star charity games streaming online in ’99. Collective bargaining negotiations in sports are excruciating -- not nearly as conducive to the way fans connect and follow the sport as the sport itself is. People want answers, a resolution, and their tolerance in the 60-second news cycle for the glacial, painful manner in which billions are divided is running out – and will be on empty soon.
People were ready to move on from the NBA in ’99, and the damage from the lockout was incalculable. To the contrary, people now want to embrace the NBA and the product and storylines it offers in the ever-more crowded landscape and crackling news cycle of sports.
But this stuff? This bickering over billions? People are ready to move on from it, go find the next story, the new trending topic, something – anything – more interesting and satisfying. And Stern knows they will find it, thus transforming his sidewalk statements into trees falling in the forest with no one around to hear.
Stern and his players have reached the point of few words, all right. If they don’t find the point of many solutions soon, those words and the whole sport will fall on deaf ears.