The NBPA Underestimated the Owners’ Insanity

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Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

The National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) has lost.  Regardless of how this lockout is eventually resolved, the owners will have won major concessions.  In fact, so many concessions have already been made by the players that Billy Hunter claims that owners acknowledge that the owners’ losses would now be covered, and to turn a profit they simply have to not mismanage their teams.  That should be plenty to get a deal done.

Yet every time a deal appears on the horizon, the owners issue an ultimatum that is completely unnecessary and essentially shuts down the negotiations.  Why?  Because a group of owners is, for lack of a better word, insane.  This isn’t about competitive balance or economics.  This is and has always been about ego.

As Dan Le Batard pointed out in his article in the Miami Herald on Sunday, you are dealing with billionaires that don’t need money from their NBA franchise.  They have alternate sources of revenue that will continue to fill their coffers as games are lost.  Most players do not.  Without other means of acquiring money, the owners know the players will eventually cave.  But the dirty little secret is that the players already caved, and that was their major mistake.  Instead of preparing for war with ideologues, they went into this process expecting to deal with sane people, who, when presented with a fair and profitable deal, would accept that.

But that is not who they are dealing with.  Sure, there are owners like that.  But there are also owners who have franchises that are flatly not good. These are highly successful businessmen that are not used to losing.  Do you think the person (Dan Gilbert) who wrote a vindictive diatribe in comic sans font ripping Lebron James cares if a season is lost?  He is worth $1.1 billion, his team stinks, and if there is a season, his nemesis has a chance to win a championship.  What financial incentive can you offer THAT person to make him agree to a deal?  Do you think that Blazers’ owner Paul Allen who is worth $13.2 billion really cares if his basketball franchise loses a few million dollars a year or makes a few million dollars a year?  You think that is why he is holding up the process?  Or is he holding up the process because his franchise stupidly picked Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant?

Raja Bell eloquently pointed out that the owners keep offering deals that they know that players can’t accept, offering something just below the acceptable line to appear that they are negotiating when they aren’t.  You know who does things like that?  Crazy people.

But what could Billy Hunter have done?  They have no leverage.  If there is never a basketball game played again, financially, the owners will be fine.  The players will not.  Eventually, the side that needs to play games will acquiesce to the demands of the side that is indifferent.  He can’t win, to a certain extent.  But he could have fought the battle differently and possibly more effectively.  There was two-pronged approach that could have applied some pressure to the owners:

  1. Fight crazy with crazy.
  2. Wage a full-fledged media campaign to target the NBA.

Crazy Only Understands One Language: Crazy

The NBPA wanted to get a deal done quickly.  They went into negotiations, hat in hand, and gave away 100s of millions of dollars, offering to take a substantial pay cut to 53% of Basketball Related Income (BRI).  Huge mistake.  The owners said, “not good enough”, but now the players had already fired their major bullet.  What else can they do at this point?  Cut a little more?  They gave away the farm (by agreeing to 53%, they have already agreed to receive the lowest amount of BRI or BRI-equivalent in professional sports) and got nothing for it.  That’s what happens when you deal with people who aren’t reasonable.  Instead, they should have demanded 60% of BRI.  What would happen then?

The owners would recoil, they would make unreasonable demands, and would issue ultimatums about how the players need to come down to their level, or they are willing to throw away a season.  Wait.  They are doing that anyway.  Except had the players started at 60%, they would have something to give.  They should have repeated this strategy with system issues as well.  Ask for an extra Mid-level Exception, lower the luxury tax penalty, demand a higher salary cap.

Insane requests?  Yes.  But then the players can make a big show of “making concessions”.  Drop from 60% to 55% and it looks like you have now done something.  Drop the demand for an extra MLE, agree to leave the tax structure in place, lower the salary cap.  And all of a sudden, you look like the reasonable side.  By immediately offering a fair and appropriate deal, they gave away any negotiating wiggle room, because they erroneously assumed that a fair and appropriate deal would be agreed to by rational owners.

Media Campaign

The only chance the NBPA had to gain any sort of leverage in this situation was to get the public to turn on the owners and David Stern.  And yet, in a shocking admission on the BS Report with Bill Simmons, Hunter claimed that he knew from the outset that he couldn’t win the media war.  Simmons, unsurprisingly, reacted with shock.

Hunter’s reasoning?  The media is in the bag for the NBA because ESPN and Turner have business agreements with the NBA and are motivated to support them.  And, to make matters worse for Hunter, the NBA has their own channel, NBA TV, which allows the NBA to get their message out whenever they want.  To steal a word from Hunter’s interview with Simmons, that’s a “canard.”  Yes, the NBA has business relationships with these entities.  But if you have followed their coverage, they have been fair, and several people on their web sites have written op-ed pieces FAVORING the players.  And to claim that the NBPA doesn’t have a venue to get their message out (which Hunter repeatedly did) is ridiculous.  Hunter’s union is made of internationally famous celebrities.  You can’t figure out how to get attention?  Really?

What should Hunter have done?  Used the likable players.  Most people following the lockout intently understand that this is a lockout, not a strike, and that the players have made major concessions while the owners repeatedly short circuit negotiations by issuing ultimatums.  But most people don’t follow these things intently, and some don’t even know the difference between a lockout and a strike.

Instead of repeating, “this is a lockout, not a strike”, in press conferences, record a television advertisement with the very popular Kevin Durant, and have him say, “All my life, I have wanted to play basketball.  I worked so hard to get to the NBA.  Last summer, I quietly re-signed with a small town team, Oklahoma City, because I want to bring a title there.  I just want to play.  David Stern won’t let me.”  Is it unfair?  Sure, but this isn’t about being fair.  The general public dislikes David Stern anyway, he is the perfect villain.

When the NBA claims that the system is broken and they need a system that ensures parity, it sounds good.  There needed to be a rapid response calling BS on that whole notion.  And they should have simply said, “I challenge anyone to devise a system where all teams on an annual basis can compete for the championship.”  There isn’t one.  Even if you have every player become a free agent, and have every current player drafted with a lottery to determine draft order (similar to a fantasy draft), you won’t have parity.  After the first 8-10 players, there is a massive drop-off, and you can’t win without those guys.  We’ve seen teams where Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol are the best players, they don’t get out of the first round.

The notion of parity is a myth.  But by not responding, the public thinks that the owners are fighting the good fight for competitive balance.  And, when the NBA claims that they need a system like the NFL where anyone can win the Super Bowl every year, distribute this chart:

Champions the Last 10 Years
NFL NBA
New England (3 times) LA Lakers (3 times)
Pittsburgh (2 times) San Antonio (3 times)
Tampa Detroit
Indianapolis Miami
NY Giants Boston
New Orleans Dallas
Green Bay

Oops.  But no one is calling them on this.  Because Hunter decided he couldn’t win the media war.  Huge miscalculation.  By losing the public (without a fight) and by giving away 100s of millions of dollars without getting concessions in return, Hunter lost a shot at leverage and lost negotiating wiggle room.  He tried to fight the good fight, to be honest and upfront, to be civil.  That is admirable, no doubt.

And it was a sound strategy if he was dealing with rational people, who had the NBA’s best interest at heart.  But that’s not who he was dealing with.  He was dealing with irrational, unbending, unmotivated billionaires who don’t need basketball.  If he can’t make a rational argument and can’t offer financial incentives, the only recourse was to get the public to turn on them.  This could have possibly allowed owners who want to get a deal done like Mark Cuban, Jerry Buss, Micky Arison, and James Dolan to win over the centrist owners who certainly don’t want to take a PR hit, and it could have allowed positive negotiations to take place.  Hunter chose to try and appease the lunacy of the hard-line owners instead.  Neville Chamberlain would be proud.

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