Thursday, October 20th, 2011...4:43 pm

Goodbye Hypothetical Basketball Association

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Our coverage of the NBA lockout has been lacking, but in our defense, it looks like we will still have plenty of time to catch up. The latest “story” to break (and I use the term story loosely) is that several star NBA players will organize and participate in a “world tour.” The implications of this are two-fold: first, how do events like this, and the various other exhibition games that have been happening over the past few months, operate as negotiation tools in the bargaining process?; and second, does this mean the players a step closer to forming their own league? We will handle the issues one at a time.

1. I have not yet seen any financial numbers on the tour, or really any of the events/exhibitions that have taken place this summer (nor am I sure if any numbers have been made public). My suspicion is that the players are making little if any money off these games. A quick Google search did not really answer any questions. The events that do charge seem to be doing so to donate to charitable organizations, which is very commendable of the players. This is for obvious reasons: these games are a negotiating tool; an effort to win the public over to the players side. (I also think it’s a bit of a miscalculation, but at least players with million dollar deals aren’t pocketing revenue from these games while simultaneously complaining how the system is flawed.)

The theory, if I had to venture a guess, is that the Players Association believes these pick-up games and loosely organized events will keep the players (and their star level) in the public consciousness, so that fans will miss the NBA and yearn to have the league come back. Presumably, this clamor would put pressure on the owners and force them to make more concessions, leading to the favorable deal the NBAPA desires. However, as I alluded to above, I think this is a fundamental miscalculation of the situation.

(Although, for the record, the owners are not reading this situation right either, as apparently they are convinced of two things: one, that this is the NHL and canceling a season will help the profitability of the league rather than hurt its image; and two, that their lack of any discretion in signing big-money, long-term contracts is not just as responsible for the financial predicament the league faces. Seriously, owners have overpaid for average players routinely over the last decade, and now they blame the players for this. What are the players supposed to do? Say, “Actually, I know you’re willing to give me 4 years and $50 million, but I’m actually worth more like $30 million.” Of course not. The owners want the CBA to save them from themselves, which is a ridiculous as it sounds, but that is a whole separate post).

In actuality, the players media tour and barnstorming events have little if any effect on the public or the negotiation process. (I was going to say ZERO effect, but that sounded a little too strong.) Take a quick look at the sports landscape right now: NFL, as popular as ever, despite its own labor issues. College Football, arguably as popular as ever and routinely getting huge ratings and even bigger television contracts (see previous posts for all the realignment stuff, which is only happening because the sport is so insanely popular and profitable). MLB, though the ratings are down a little in the league championship and World Series, is coming off a huge month of September where two improbable pennant chases brought nationwide attention to the game. College basketball is about to start. The NHL, apparently, has started its season (I’m not an NHL guy, though I apparently love parentheticals. They lost me around 2000 or so when scoring effectively stopped, and then really lost me when they skipped a season). The point is, no one is missing the NBA right now.

A quick tour around the country shows very few markets where its absence is being felt. Miami is a no-brainer. The Heat dominated that town last year and the U isn’t very good this year. Same goes for Los Angeles and the Lakers. Chicago? I bet they’re more excited about Theo Epstein to the Cubs and the Blackhawks title defense, but that is at least debatable. New York? Maybe, but the Knicks weren’t any good anyway, and the Giants and Jets aren’t exactly low-profile. Dallas? Two words: America’s Team … and also the Rangers in the World Series. Boston? Have your heard about fried chicken and beer? Or maybe some guy named Brady? Philly? Not a chance; the town, and myself, are still in mourning over the Phillies. Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta? NFL is a far bigger deal and their teams all stink in the NBA anyway. We could keep going, but you get the picture.

If anything, you could argue these games are a desperate attempt by the players to hold on to any leverage they might have, although this whole line of reasoning assumes that the agents and NBAPA are pushing the players to participate and organize these events in order to drum up publicity as a potential negotiating tool. Though I don’t necessarily buy it, maybe they are just playing to play, and not even considering the labor ramifications. Either way, it is difficult to make an argument as to how these events will help them at the bargaining table.

2. I’m not sure exactly who mentioned it, but there has been a lot of discussion about whether the players would try to spurn the NBA in the wake of their labor trouble and form their own league. After all, the story goes, the NBA is a “star-driven” league and if fans will pay big dollars for regular season games on a Tuesday night in January for the NBA, they would pay big dollars for a short-season amalgamation of a league comprised of ‘select’ star players without the NBA structure. ESPN is running a story in their magazine this week exploring the possibility (also available online here). Their corporate partner (subsidiary?) ran a feature about the challenges this hypothetical league would face a few weeks ago. The Starting Five, a sports blog, ran their own examination of a hypothetical league in July. Carmelo Anthony has reportedly discussed the possibility with Lebron James. So what are the chances that this could actually happen.

First, the legal side. As the amount of events and exhibitions discussed above indicate, the lockout effectively removes any controls the individuals teams might have over their players. Contract or not, every NBA player is free to participate in any non-sanctioned event they want. FIBA, basketball’s international organizing body, has determined that NBA players can play in other sanctioned leagues as well, provided there are outs in their contracts for when the NBA resumes play. So, on that note, the players are legally able to form an organized league.

So that brings us to structure. Most NBA arenas are owned by teams and even those who aren’t still have valid leases with the teams that occupy them, so it would be impossible to use current NBA venues. However, there are no such restrictions with college gyms or otherwise unoccupied venues. For instance, Kansas City has what is referred to as an NBA-ready building just waiting for a team to become available. A city like Pittsburgh could also easily accommodate a team. However, any league put together hastily (as this one would need to be) is likely to be a better fit in smaller arenas like college gyms. Scheduling would then be an issue, but one that probably could be overcome.

On the other hand, there is very little, if any, chance that a hypothetical league could put together the necessary infrastructure in the next few months. And we haven’t even discussed the funding for such a league yet. The league would have to decide on the number of teams, find owners for those teams, find venues, schedule games, hire coaches, trainers, equipment managers, print and sell tickets and dozens of other tasks that I can’t think of because I’ve never run a professional sports league. And that’s the whole point: none of these guys have ever run a league.

For this to actually happen, the players would have to find a renegade billionaire willing to take a large financial risk, who also had some interest in basketball and some skill in either organizing the league or hiring those who could, on an extremely accelerated timetable. Does this type of person even exist? If he did, would he be interested? Assuming this person is in fact out there, my guess is he or she would want at least some time appreciable amount of time to put together a business plan and attempt to estimate the cost of all those things mentioned in the last paragraph. Then he would need at least 2 months to put everything in place, and when I say 2 months I think I am being generous. So best case scenario, this league could be close to operation at the end of January.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, this all happens and it’s January 25th. What next, you might ask? David Stern, NBA Commissioner, uses his prodigious power and lifts the lockout. According to federal labor law, when parties have bargained to an impasse, the employers can prescribe labor conditions, subject to reasonableness requirements of course, and resume business. In most industries, pro sports excepted, the business must go on when a collective bargaining agreement expires. If the union does not strike, or the employer does not lock the employees out, they continue to operate under these conditions until an agreement is reached. Of course the National Labor Relations Board and applicable law are a little more complicated then that, but the important takeaway is that the NBA could end the lockout, and every player under contract would be forced to return to the league. (Another potential pitfall: such a hypothetical league would have to start small, maybe 8 or 12 teams. Let’s say 12 players per roster. That’s between 96-144 jobs. The NBA, when it isn’t locked out, contains 30 teams with 15 roster spots each. What are the other 350 players so when their brethren abandons them for this new league?)

Goodbye Hypothetical Basketball Association, because any savvy billionaire who might have otherwise been willing to fund such a league would come to the same conclusion we just did, and realize that no rival league could ever truly arise. At least not a league that is structured anything like the professional sports organizations we currently have in this country. Maybe they mean a barnstorming league which presumably would not require the level of organizational structure contemplated above. It probably wouldn’t be nearly as profitable either. My advice would be not to invest in any “renegade league” quite yet.

I was hoping to get to a quick point about MLB Playoff ratings, but I’ll save that for later.

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