Commentary

Letter to players raises fair questions

Updated: October 5, 2011, 4:46 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

The letter sent out Monday by six player agencies recommending that their clients not give in to the owners' demands for massive concessions in the current negotiations over a new labor deal is sure to anger a lot of people.

Most likely NBA commissioner David Stern. Billy Hunter, the players' union director, for sure. And, although it's just a guess, a healthy number of NBA fans. One, because it's almost second nature to see anything agents do as an ill wind. Two, because it's also second nature to view players as greedy because they make a ton of money playing a game the majority of us play for free. And, of course, three, because it makes a new labor deal being agreed upon anytime soon far more remote.

But all that doesn't make the questions and concerns the letter raises any less appropriate or fair. I'd love to see a full 2011-12 NBA season that starts on time, but, just as a paid observer, it feels as if the owners crafted the narrative of what these negotiations are all about from the start, and the union -- by making immediate concessions -- has become an accomplice to presenting a picture of the NBA and its financial health that simply doesn't completely make sense.

How does an industry increase its revenue, in one of the country's worst economic periods in 80 years, and suggest it is failing? Why would multiple businessmen, smart enough to make themselves into millionaires and billionaires, fight for the chance to join that industry by buying a franchise?

And how would the top dog of that industry, commissioner Stern, not only still have his job but be in charge of negotiating the next agreement?

And why would squeezing the players, who are not the ones mishandling all that growth, assure that those who are won't find another way to screw up, if indeed that is actually happening?

I don't know the exact details of the NBA's financial picture. Neither does the players' union. By now you've heard the figure "$300 million in losses," which has been repeated so often it is taken as fact. That's how much Stern says the league's teams collectively fell short last season. Their financial records on basketball-related income produced that figure, we're told. The players' union had enough confidence in it that it offered to compensate the owners for it in the next labor deal, as long as everything else stayed equal. It was a good-faith gesture. The owners mocked it.

I'm not sure why the union didn't realize right then that the owners were intent on dictating a deal -- not negotiating one -- but it didn't.

It's common knowledge around the NBA that, as the agents' letter points out, those financial records don't account for all sorts of money-making enterprises the owners have and benefit from because they own an NBA franchise. It doesn't account for owners who bought an arena in conjunction with buying a team, and therefore can reap the profits of staging concerts and conventions and monster-truck rallies. It doesn't account for the regional TV networks various owners have, where they get to negotiate TV broadcast deals with themselves because televising their teams' games is the signature content.

Maybe the craziest aspect of buying into the owners' narrative is that what little we do know about the financial picture for the league's two most profitable teams -- the Lakers and New York Knicks -- suggests those two teams could finance a profitable league all by themselves. The Lakers just signed a local cable TV deal that will, by industry estimates, increase their profits from that revenue stream alone from $30 million to $150 million. Annually. For the next 20 years.

And yet the Knicks, according to several league front-office sources, will remain the most profitable team in the league, as they've been for the past decade. This, despite the fact that they've made the playoffs twice in the past 10 years with a $100 million-plus player payroll that led the league for many of those years.

Are there teams in cities such as New Orleans and Sacramento that are not that flush right now? Absolutely. And yet there are still buyers lining up for a chance to own them. There can be only one of two reasons for that being the case. One, there are a lot of really stupid rich people looking to throw away their money. Two, those teams aren't, or shouldn't be, losing money.

When the negotiating committees began exchanging proposals in earnest last week, several league sources assured me it was a matter of when, not if, a deal would be struck. Some even suggested the owners already have much of what they want and are simply looking at how much they can squeeze out of the players at this point.

The one thing that stood out in all those conversations is that no one ever talked about what the owners "need" to make the league viable. They talked only about what they "want."

That, to me, is the essence of what the agents are saying to their clients: these negotiations aren't about the league's future. Only yours.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer