Sports fans are smarter than ever about Big Picture sportin’ trends, and as a result NBA journalists have to serve the need for quick answers to pertinent fan questions. The big upshot from the reaction following the NBA’s updated television rights agreement with ESPN and Turner on Monday concerned the possibility of a players strike or owners’ lockout in 2017, when NBA players can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement.
NBA players did sign off on that agreement in the fall of 2011 after an extended lockout, but the feeling then and especially now is that the players took a massive negotiating hit along the way. With franchises selling for billions, and television rights fees tripling in 2016, players are rightfully already steeling themselves for a needed battle in 2017.
"I think it's going in pretty much the same direction as it was last time (lockout of 2011)," said Williams, who is Brooklyn's union rep. "So I feel like we made a lot of concessions last time, and it's going to be hard for us to do that again. With the new leadership we have and (former NBAPA president Billy Hunter) finally being out of the picture, which is a great thing, hopefully things will go better for us."
"I hope guys are preparing (for a work stoppage)," said Williams, who played overseas during the 2011 lockout — a stoppage into December that cut 16 games off the NBA season. "When I first got in the league (in 2005), it's when the old collective bargaining agreement was just kicking in. And as soon as I got in the league, they were already telling us to prepare for the next lockout. And it was ingrained in my mind. And I was prepared for that. I didn't know that everybody did. So I would hope that people in the league learned from that and can tell the younger guys as well.
"We just have to start preparing early as a union (for a work stoppage). When we had a meeting in July, that was the focus of the meeting. We'll be better prepared this time, we'll be more ready to take different actions if need be."
Now, there are distinctions to make here. The players would presumably opt out of the contract they agreed to in 2011 in order to re-negotiate, which would make this more of a strike than a lockout if NBA business is halted, and checks are turned down. Whether or not the players would vote to do as much, initiating the NBA’s first player strike in its history, is up for conjecture – but with so much money on the table the players could unite to make a penny-foolish, pound-wise move for the long term.
This would result in a public relations disaster for the players, chided by an unknowing American (often non) viewing public for refusing millions to play a child’s game, but the idea would be that by 2017 the majority of American sports fans would understand just how terrible a deal the NBA players agreed to in 2011. American sports fans, weirdly, typically side with management and owners in such disputes, so the NBA Players Association has its work cut out for itself in attempting to shift appearances.
The current CBA called for the players to receive as little as 49 percent of the basketball related income the NBA takes in, and as much as 51 percent should things go well for the league. Clearly, things are going well for the NBA, and the players will be right in wanting to shift the line of profits that head their way. Critics can take the players down for agreeing to a bad contract and not seeing it out, but the whole reason the NBA locked its players out in 2011 is because owners agreed to a series of terrible contracts, and they needed further protection to save themselves from their checkbooks.
The players, this time around, will be run by a new union president in Michele Roberts, who hopefully will have a long list of on-record quotes on the ready in order to throw in the face of NBA team owners – including the remarks made by Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis on Monday, who mirrored his city’s longtime obsession with supply-side economics (“a rising tide will lift all boats,” he offered at Monday’s press conference announcing the deal) and remarked unsolicited that it has “never been a better time to be an owner of an NBA franchise.”
The players and their representatives will remember these quotes. LeBron James mentioned as much at Cleveland Cavaliers practice on Monday.
"We gave a lot," James said of the 2011 collective bargaining dispute between the league's owners and players that resulted in a lockout and shortened season. "The whole thing that went on with the last negotiation process was the owners are losing money. There's no way they can sit in front of us and tell us that right now.
"As we continue to see teams selling for billions of dollars, being purchased for $200 million, selling for $550 million, $750 million, and now $2 billion ... so that will not fly with us this time."
The owners were losing money the last time around, and Leonsis’ Wizards team did lose money last year. That had less to do with the prior collective bargaining agreement, and more to do with poor decision-making from NBA team front offices and a spotty economy – to say nothing of a dodgy TV rights deal that the league signed with ESPN and Turner at low ebb in the league’s history.
Things have changed in the years since, however, and things will certainly change once the NBA triples that television revenue in 2016. The players should be expected to want to be part of that growth in ways that go beyond their 51 percent cut, in 2017, and we sincerely hope the league’s extended fandom understands as much.
The NBA and its players have a good chance to avoid any missed games during the 2017-18 season. Some sound give and take has to happen before sanity prevails, however.
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