Bring on your backroom deals

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
12:49
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
I believe in transparency. I believe in building consensus. I believe in square deals, and keeping your word.

But for the moment, I’m putting all that aside and cheering heartily for the opposite: secret, backroom, fat cat powerbroker wheeling and dealing.

And, in anticipation of a select group of NBA and Players Association bigwigs holing up in a secret location in Manhattan on Wednesday, I invite right-minded sports fans everywhere to join me.

Here’s why: There is not a deal to be had, right now, which fits with the hopes and dreams of all players and owners. If you ask them “what do you think is fair” they will express positions all over the map, in many cases very far apart from each other.

On the other hand, if David Stern and Billy Hunter could come up with something they both thought was good enough, and if they got to telling all their people this is the deal, and they had better give it their support … well that could have its ugly side.

But it would also work.

The owners hold aces, and know it
The NBA owners are feeling enough real financial pain, and are irreplaceable enough (you try to get 30 stadiums built and filled with paying fans in North America in 2011, you try to sign up all those local and national TV deals that make it all hum) to get really indignant about this whole thing. It is easy for a lot of them to convince themselves that they hold the key to this entire process, and as such can play real hardball right now and get good results from all that. That’s all right and true.

The players hold aces, and know it
The NBA players are feeling that their hard work -- and broad global appeal -- is the engine driving the NBA’s historic popularity, and that the league is essentially worthless with replacement players. (You try to sell season tickets and TV deals to an NBA with replacement players. The NBA knows how this goes ‘cause they run the D-League.) They also feel that they have already made a number of concessions, and they’re feeling not just a big tapped out, but also like they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere, or they’ll risk handing hard-fought historical gains right back to the owners. That’s all right and true, too.

Only one solution
The leaders of these two groups would have an easy time stiffening spines. It would be a cinch to turn this into a long-term drawn out blood feud over issues like hard caps, guaranteed profitability and entirely guaranteed contracts. If religious fervor grips in the room, there will be no deal anytime soon.

But that won’t get anyone anywhere, because for all the talk about the NLRB, the courts, decertification and the like, for all the saber-rattling and righteous indignance, it is almost certain that the only path to a deal is through negotiations between these two parties.

There will be no other owners to deal with. There will be no other players to deal with. There will be no outsiders taking over the process.

Even if the union decertifies like the NFL did, the biggest change will not be an end to talks. It will be the head of the union giving up his seat at the negotiating table to be temporarily replaced by a lawyer -- almost certainly Jeffrey Kessler, who is already in Hunter's ear daily as it is.

If you look through sports history, when the courts get involved, they can influence things, by giving one side or another more leverage. But they are just about never a way around talks. (In theory a judge could, somewhere way down the line, impose some kinds of work rules, but it is pie-in-the-sky enough that nobody is working towards it.)

The players and the owners will negotiate a deal with each other -- with or without lawsuits ongoing -- or the NBA will remain closed.

Due to be ignored: Hardliners on both sides
So long as that’s the case, and so long as there are hardliners in the two camps who see things entirely differently … it’s mathematical that the hardliners won’t dictate the final outcome.

Which means you can politely ask them to stand down now, or later.

The road ahead
The gross revenue split. That’s the big issue, and it’s a fancy way of saying: how much of the NBA’s revenues will go to owners each year? How much to players?

One side can make a great case players should get 54 percent of the old, generous definition of basketball-related income. The other side can make a great case that players should get 44 percent of a new, strict definition of BRI. That is close to a $500 million annual gap.

Everything to be negotiated stems from that. If that issue were settled, there will still be a ton left to do. This hard cap/soft cap/flex cap/newsboy cap (just making sure you're still paying attention) is the only other profound issue. After that’s settled, there will be long sweaty hours hashing out so many little things, like benefits, pensions, drug testing, draft rules, per diem, age limits, trade rules, training camps, practices, appearances and everything else.

Estimates are that -- once the revenue issue is settled -- the other stuff will take another week or two of long hours in a hotel conference room somewhere.

There is a lot of negotiating yet to be done, in other words, even after the big money issue is settled.

Very soon the schedule will condemn a timely 2011-2012 season.

All the more reason it’s worth doing what it takes, including some backroom dealing, to get things moving now.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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