Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Other Moneyball: Notes On the NBA Lockout

For the last few weeks, I've been toying with the idea of doing a piece on the current NBA lockout, but a few troubles and issues have delayed it. At first, I wondered why I cared so much, especially given my other interests and goals: the impressive fall book season; much needed, behind the scenes work for Instafiction; getting used to a seasonal position back in bookselling; and so forth. The bigger picture, however, is literally a bigger picture. With so much going on in the world, namely the passionate Occupy Wall Street movements, why am I concerning myself with the squabbles and ridiculous back-and-forth between billionaire team owners and millionaire professional athletes, men who wring their hands over lost revenue and income, but in reality could never work another day in their lives and still have a better quality of life than the often mentioned 99%? But then again, even as I plan to visit Chicago's Occupy groups in the very near future, and as I focus on my literary goals, there's no shame in my being a basketball fan and annually looking forward to cold winter evenings with drinks, friends, and a game on TV. Last year's playoffs, even with my Bulls falling to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, proved to be some of the most exciting postseason basketball in recent memory. And right now, with NBA games canceled through November 30th (at the time of this writing), fans could be "treated" to a repeat of the 1998-1999 season, which was cut to 50 games and featured watered down playoffs that didn't feel complete, especially since no team had a truly full season.

Right now, the NBA Player's Union and league executives are trying to pass a new collective bargaining agreement. There are many contractual stipulations at hand, but the most divisive issue has been BRI: Basketball Related Income. The team owners want a 50-50 split of basketball revenues, whereas the players want to get 52%, which is down from the 57% given to them under the previous agreement (these stats are taken from this article from The Associated Press). Much like the recent NFL lockout, another instance of "billionaires fighting with millionaires," the average person likely has little sympathy for either side. The owners purchased their teams, and like any business, profits are the bottom line. They pay millions in player contracts with the hope of putting winning teams on the courts, and therefore increasing income via the fans. But suddenly, with the potential for even more money on the table, the owners frantically point to fiscal losses and demand a salary cap. The players, while directly responsible for the income that a team generates (executives cannot hit three pointers or play defense), have the option of playing overseas for less money, but still for thousands and even millions. This also doesn't take into account advertising and income related to endorsement deals. Again, these are just the details. I'm a basketball fan, but after months of unemployment and still living drastically beneath my meager means, these details aren't meant to give an edge to either side. In reality, no matter what the final agreement is, both sides will be financially well off for life, and the whole cycle will begin anew when the future agreement expires.

Billy Hunter, the Player's Union Executive Director, and David Stern, the NBA's Commissioner (pictured above), keep going back and forth in the media, thereby, perhaps intentionally, giving sportswriters the obvious angles in which to pursue the story. Sometimes, this is done humorously, making for a read that is at least enjoyable, even if it sheds no new light on the subject (see some of the articles in Grantland, such as this one from Jonathan Abrams). More often than not, sportswriters are naturally critical of the whole debacle, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. Yesterday, Hunter claimed that he (and the union) feels "snookered" by the owners' attempts to bring the two sides closer together. Sean Deveny of The Sporting News offered this statement in a recent article: "The rest of the world—normal folks, the ones who watch the games, the ones dealing with a battered economy, not just here but all over the world—are looking at a group of 400 players and 30 owners fighting over 2 percent of $4 billion." His claim is that the fans are the ones who should feel insulted, since they are the ones who financially support the organization. However, much like the aforementioned NFL lockout, it's tiring to see the fans help up like neglected children who are watching their parents fight. In the scheme of things, basketball fans can turn to NCAA basketball and other winter sports, but there's something insulting about the idea that the consumers are always portrayed as innocent pawns who just want to give their money and time to the NBA. I personally watch games, but I never purchase licensed products or find myself swayed by commercial advertising, but that goes for areas outside of the NBA as well. In this economy, both the players and owners should realize how lucky they are to have this much money to fight about.

The problem is that NBA fans have not made major complaints about the lockout, which is fascinating to me. I'm a very casual football fan, and I wouldn't have been deprived if the NFL season had been scaled down or canceled, but at that time, football fans were constantly taking to social media to bemoan the potential loss of that game. Yes, football is much more popular than basketball right now, but the media members are the ones attempting to create fan backlash where there is none. However, where are the fans who were rooting for various teams during the playoffs? I saw a variety of impressive commentaries via Twitter last spring, yet nobody seems to care if the entire NBA season is lost. However, there is a much more important angle that has been lost in the shuffle, and does tie into the money that fans end up spending.

In the above AP article, Commissioner Stern was said to have apologized to the people whose livelihoods are directly connected to the NBA: the salespeople, concession workers, cleanup crews, maintenance workers, and regular employees who work at the twenty-nine NBA arenas. However, there wasn't even a direct quote from Mr. Stern, only a recapped line at the end of the article. To me, this is the biggest travesty of the entire lockout. At the end of a given workday, I'll have plenty of things to occupy my time if there are no basketball games to watch this winter. NBA players will have other sources of income to live better than the rest of the world. Owners, people who amassed staggering fortunes that allowed them to purchase their teams, won't be counting spare change in order to buy a gallon of milk. However, nobody is thinking about the people who earn money directly or indirectly (restaurant/bar owners and staff, the aforementioned stadium workers) who are losing money that is the difference between getting by and being poverty-stricken. In this sense, my opening mention of the Occupy Wall Street movements could also apply to the National Basketball Association. In this case, there is a true representation of the divide between the 1% and the 99%. With an entire month of the season already canceled, the league needs to come to an agreement, and fast. If fans do become apathetic, their withheld dollars won't affect the players or the owners, but rather the faceless worker who very well is working at a stadium to support a child or a family. At the end of the day, there is so much more at stake than the ability to watch a game. If more people called attention to the plight of average workers, if priorities were truly in order, none of this would be happening. Instead, fans and readers will be fed the same recaps until the agreement is met, when in reality there should be outrage, not for the players, but for the people who depend on their abilities to draw fans and supporters. Once the agreement is reached, there will be smiles and handshakes all around, and the fierce divide will be conveniently forgotten. But none of those dollars will go to the people who need it the most. Much like the Occupy movements, this isn't about handouts, but rather equality and the rights of people to earn a living.

So this is my message to the league and the union: try to think about the people you pass in the hallways at the arena. You probably won't, but imagine your survival depending on an extra paycheck. There are thousands depending on you.

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