PHOENIX – David Stern was a barrel of laughs Saturday night at his annual All-Star news conference, and I know why.
Yes, Stern has much to be proud of (not the lame H-O-R-S-E competition, mind you). The talent level and interest being generated by his league are such that he should be beaming. Recent rules changes have spread the floor, made the game more perimeter-oriented, increased scoring, and freed the best athletes in all the major American pro sports to showcase their talents.
The Lakers-Celtics rivalry is in full froth. The greatest player in the game, Kobe Bryant, has a legitimate challenger, LeBron James, in a way that Michael Jordan never did at this point in his career. We are still only a few days removed from a stellar week of basketball at Madison Square Garden, which is something no one has been able to say since the Clinton administration.
But trouble is on the horizon. Don’t believe the rosy picture that was painted Saturday by Stern and his negotiating partner, NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. Players, agents, owners, and fans need to be prepared for the worst. That is why Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, and president of league and basketball operations Joel Litvin did not mince words in speaking to the league’s general managers Friday during the rules and competition committee meeting.
One person who was present, who requested anonymity, said Stern warned the GMs that while revenue was holding steady for 2008-09, the projections for 2009-10 could be scary. The typical season-ticket renewal rate of 85 percent won’t be close to that, nor will sponsorship renewals. Those decisions for this season were made before the economic tsunami hit.
“Be careful,” is the way the person present at the meeting described Stern’s overall message.
Stern said Saturday night he did not give teams any advice or instructions on how to run their businesses. Silver and Litvin both said “warning” was too strong a word to describe Stern’s address to the GMs, and insisted that no concrete revenue projections were conveyed.
“They know exactly what’s happening,” Stern said. “They know what their finances are. They know what the issues are. We also know that the cap is going to start ... the cap is coming down.”
It was the first time Stern had publicly acknowledged that the salary cap – which is set yearly based on the previous season’s revenue – could be reduced. The red-flag year is 2010-11, which will be based on revenue from 2009-10. That means player salaries will come down, which one team executive said would not necessarily be a bad thing for the sport.
“It’s some much-needed belt-tightening that should’ve happened years ago,” the executive said. “But times were good, everybody was making money, so nobody cared.”
It just so happens that 2011 is when the collective bargaining agreement expires. So it was refreshing to hear Stern and Hunter announce that they’ve already begun hammering out the framework for an extension. It won’t be easy work.
“We just thought it was apropos that we sit down and begin to look at the situation,” Hunter said. “Particularly in view of the current economic climate, in hopes of getting another deal in place without some kind of work stoppage, lockout, etc. ... I will do everything within my power – everything within reason – to get an agreement. At the same time, I’m going to be an aggressive negotiator for my players.”
Stern, entering his second quarter-century as commissioner, doesn’t need anyone to negotiate for him. Near the end of his news conference, he was asked for his thoughts on a recent report that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig draws an $18 million salary.
“What’s the question?” Stern asked.
“What do you think the going rate for a commissioner should be?” the reporter asked. “I would do the MasterCard ad if they asked me,” Stern said. “Priceless.”
“Are you having a better year than Bud?” the reporter asked, a reference to Babe Ruth’s famous explanation for why he made more money than the president.
“I think it is safe to say that Bud is the leader of us all,” Stern said, “and deserving of everything that he makes.”
Whatever it is, Stern will earn it over the next 18 months.