Commentary

NBA lockout will dwarf the NFL strife

Next to the current NFL lockout, the NBA's problems are distressingly monumental

Originally Published: July 1, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

The NFL ought to be embarrassed to call its little labor dispute a lockout. No regular-season games will be missed; no preseason games will be missed. When all is said and done, not a single day of training camp will be lost. How dire can it be if the commissioner and the union chief are flying around the country together, all chummy like the stars in a buddy movie? The sum total of the damage from pro football's work stoppage will be the sacrifice of a bunch of manufactured and overstated offseason activities that didn't even exist 20 years ago and don't need to be on the sports calendar now.

The NBA, on the other hand, is about to show the NFL how to conduct a truly contentious labor war and stage a lockout likely to do real damage in terms of dollars, goodwill and reputation.

The NFL was never going to miss anything meaningful.

The NBA might miss the entire 2011-12 season.

[+] EnlargeBilly Hunter
AP Photo/Mary AltafferNBA union chief Billy Hunter says it's too early to write off the whole season. Anyone believe him?

Yes, the two sides are that far apart. They're miles apart. The only thing that passed for optimism came and went during the feel-good NBA Finals when the two sides had a few days of civility. This isn't a matter of figuring out how to split up profits, which is what the NFL faces. This is how Tom Penn, ESPN's expert on professional basketball's financial matters, put it Wednesday: If the NFL labor dispute is a sprained ankle, the NBA's is a torn ACL and a ripped Achilles. NFL teams still make money; it's just that instead of $30-40 million a year in profit, they've been down recently to, say, $9-10 million.

The NBA, meanwhile, has teams losing real money. The league says 22 of 30 are operating in the negative; the players association would surely say it's fewer than that. Either way, it's reasonable -- if not downright inescapable -- to conclude there are NBA teams awash in red ink. It costs less for those owners to keep their arenas closed than to stage the games. The owners of those teams want a harder salary cap than exists now, and probably a cap that down the road becomes not just harder, but hard, period. The owners say that's a must, while the players say a hard cap is a no-go. Instead of the players getting 57 percent of basketball-related income, the owners want something more akin to a 60-40 split in their favor.

In other words, the two sides ain't close. They're not even close to close. They're further apart, actually, than they were in 1998-99 when the entire season came within 24 hours of being canceled.

The NBA is going to miss games, and the smart money is on the league missing lots of games. A new group of owners who paid a ton of money for their franchises since the last work stoppage 13 years ago are ready to sacrifice the season. The six owners who have both NHL and NBA teams saw first-hand how sacrificing essentially an entire season led to an overhauled NHL with slashed costs, and they're drooling over the prospect of an NBA with similar cost certainty.

This dispute, ladies and gents, starts at contentious. David Stern, while he won't want a missed season staining his legacy as commissioner, nonetheless said last week that once a lockout starts, the league's offers will only be lowered, which doesn't exactly sound like good-faith negotiating. There's very little reason to be optimistic, other than the fact that Stern and union chief Billy Hunter were the same guys doing these exact jobs 13 years ago and are acutely aware of the damage the sport sustained then. Hunter has even said it took at least six years for the league and its players to get back to where they were before the 1998 lockout.

Yet, the lockout is in place as of 12:01 a.m. Friday, even though the NBA -- thanks to a compelling past 12 months and 2011 season -- stands on the verge of a boom cycle, even though every single indicator of interest is up. The owners are determined to come up with a new system more profitable to them and the players say they're stronger and smarter and more prepared than in '99 and won't cave as easily as they did then.

While there are players out there who say they have hope the season will begin on time, November, December and January seem already lost if the prevailing mood is any kind of indication.

Hunter told reporters Thursday it's too early to call it an eventuality, saying, "I hope it doesn't come to that. Obviously, the clock is now running with regard to whether or not there will be a loss of games, so I'm hoping that over the next month or so there will be a sort of softening of their side and maybe we have to soften our position as well."

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern and Billy Hunter
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesLet's put on a happy face with this reminder of the Jan. 7, 1999 press conference at which Hunter and David Stern announced the end of the last lockout.

Still, there's not a ton of optimism floating around. ESPN's Penn, who has the experience of working for a couple of small market teams (Portland and Memphis) and practically dealing with all 30 teams in the league, told Tony Kornhesier and me on Thursday's "PTI" that he'd put the odds of the season being canceled at as high as 75 percent. Charles Barkley said recently it wouldn't surprise him if the season was canceled.

Stern and Hunter can hope for a full season, but at least they aren't misleading anybody by predicting a quick end to the dispute. Stern said, "These kinds of things take on a life of their own, and I just don't know where their life is going to lead."

Does that sound like a realist talking, or what? Hunter's latest characterization was, "The gap is too great."

Could the two sides be moving forward with less energy? It's eerily reminiscent of 13 years ago when the union and management went more than 40 days without any kind of bargaining session, which led Barkley to savage both sides for dragging their feet. And officials from both ends of this dispute, 13 years later, characterize the two sides as being further apart now than they were then.

And to think: Back during the NBA All-Star break, both parties were thinking that a quick resolution to the NFL labor dispute might help push basketball's two sides to move fairly quickly.

So now, as the sport with the greatest hold on the nation moves closer to resuming activity, basketball exits stage left, not only failing to cut into pro football's sizeable lead but failing to capitalize long-term on 12 months of being front and center in a way no marketing exec could dare have dreamed. Very quickly, the NBA has waved bye-bye to momentum and goodwill, and hello to uncertainty and an annoyed if not outraged fan base, most of which is sophisticated enough to know that a great storm is brewing just over the horizon.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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