Commentary

Pressure on Stern bad news for players

With owners seeking complete control of their product, players may be forced to cave in

Updated: July 1, 2011, 11:02 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

It's midnight for the NBA, literally and metaphorically.

Now we'll begin to find out whether all this resolve the players purport to have is legitimate -- or just the latest smoke screen created in a desperate attempt to ward off the oncoming onslaught of a nemesis performing his very last collective bargaining negotiations:

Commissioner David Stern.

The thing is, these negotiations are not just about Stern. They're not just about the players, either. These talks are about a cadre of owners sick of losing money, desperate for additional revenue and significantly more control, hell-bent on re-establishing law and order -- while being a helluva lot less interested in acquiescing to Stern.

Of course, no one's stupid enough to question the power and influence Stern still wields.

Old-school owners in the league still swear by him, still willing to do whatever he suggests without question, lavishing over the bloated value of franchises now worth over $400 million, once purchased by the likes of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for just $13.5 million (back in 1981).

Let me be clear. The commissioner will cajole, bully, massage, then bully some more. In response, the players -- leaning on the "partnership" owners love to talk about -- will do the same. They'll posture during negotiations because that's what you do during negotiations, flex muscles you may not have.

But when all is said and done, I believe the players will return -- without having missed a single game.

It sounds crazy, I know. The league and its players' association are about $7 billion apart at this moment in time. But this is not the NFL product the public is desperately clamoring for.

This is not a league generating $9.3 billion in annual revenue. The NBA is losing money, with owners salivating at the thought of a lockout just for the purposes of making money for a change.

And if dollars aren't earned from an active 2011-12 season, the millionaire owners still have more millions coming in from their network television deals to provide a cushion for the year. In contrast, all the players have are their emotions, their misery and diminished bank accounts.

Billy Hunter, the NBPA's executive director, is many things. Mostly positive, actually. But he's not a bank, to be sure. He isn't about to cut any checks. And if the players don't know as much, they certainly will if they walk out.

They are not Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who saw a reported 26 percent drop in the value of his franchise the second LeBron James departed last summer. They are not Bob Johnson, former owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, who reportedly lost $125 million in his sale of the club to Michael Jordan in 2010. Nor are they Peter Guber and Joe Lacob, who just bought the Golden State Warriors for $450 million.

Regardless of their public statements, these slew of new owners have their own mission: Control over their product. And if that means cancellation of games -- or the entire 2011-12 season -- so be it.

"They'll never say that publicly," one executive for an Eastern Conference team said, "but why would they have to when the numbers will do the talking for them?

Billy Hunter
Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty ImagesWhen looking at the financial numbers, Billy Hunter and the union disagree with the league's claims.

"About 22 of the 30 teams are losing money. The league has lost more than $300 million annually. The economy has messed with folks to the point where team and league employees are about to get laid off. Something has to be done.

"At some point you've got to draw the line. Owners are not making the money they once made, so the same has to occur with the players. It's a business. Follow the folks with the most capital. In the end, that's what is calling the shots. The players can say they have rights all they want. They can talk about a partnership. Fair enough! But then that means they should recognize the owners have a right to make money, too. To share in revenue more equitably, which means sharing the losses. That's just the way it needs to be."

Evidently, the players' association doesn't think so.

The players are interested in giving back $100 million in salaries over the next five years, not $800 million annually over the next 10 years. They're interested in reducing their level of basketball-related income from 57 percent to 54.3 percent, not giving back 25-40 percent of revenue yearly over the life of the agreement.

Like any players' association, NBA players are not interested in entertaining a hard salary cap. Nor are they interested in listening to league officials who call it a Flex Tax. And they're not interested in having the maximum limit on guaranteed deals reduced from 5-6 years to three years, either.

"We're not the ones who have a problem with the agreement we presently have," Hunter said. "We're sensitive to what league owners are telling us. We understand we're living in a different time and we hear what they're saying about adjustments that need to me made. But when you're approximately $7 billion apart, when you haven't moved for months, and you've spent years threatening to take us to this point, it is what it is.

"The players have resolve. We're all for legitimate negotiations as opposed to some of the incredible things they're asking for. Our league has enjoyed a sensational year, breaking numerous ratings, experiencing tremendous success. It doesn't have to be interrupted, but it's their call to lock us out. We certainly expected it and we're ready for it."

The owners swear they're ready, as well, providing every appearance imaginable that they mean precisely what they say. But what about Stern?

Aside from the 32 games missed during the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season, there has been labor peace in the NBA. Yet, it was a struggle, even then, to win back fans who were disgusted at a lockout taking place to begin with.

Fast forward to now, 2011, and chances are things will be worse. After months of hearing noise over the NFL lockout, the public probably doesn't have the stomach to deal with another labor dispute. Not now, anyway.

Somehow, someway, Stern has always been equipped to handle this. There was always another CBA deal to be made, after all. And plenty of time left in his career.

But times are different now for Stern, negotiating his last deal. They're different for the owners, too -- hawks more concerned with winning than with Stern's legacy.

This isn't a bluff, and if the players don't know it now, they will.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."

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