This past Friday, NBA commissioner David Stern went on Bill Simmons’s BS Report podcast, speaking for an hour primarily about the NBA Lockout (side note: I am not sure why this had to go up on Friday afternoon instead of being held for Monday morning. Grantland has not been optimizing the release time of its content the last few weeks).
In Stern’s past appearances on the BS Report, Simmons has played the role of mildly annoying but genuinely curious instigator, gleaning whatever information Stern decides to give but knowingly setting himself up to be spoken to patronizingly and dismissingly. The tone of the conversations was generally jovial and light as the two engaged in banter and played off each others’ characters.
Friday’s podcast, however, took a decidedly different tone as Simmons opened by flatly telling Stern, “I’ve got to be honest with you. This is the maddest I’ve ever been at you…where is the urgency right now?” When Simmons started this way, I was expecting a much more combative conversation than what ultimately ended up occurring. Usually, Stern speaks caustically and acerbically, conveying his message in such a compelling manner that you momentarily forget that what he says and the truth are not necessarily always congruent. This happens even when he is not on the defensive so I thought that during the course of this conversation he might get truly angry and have one of his fabled temper tantrums.
Where I was expecting Stern to be a pugnacious bully, though, he was even-tempered. “We need a reset in the amount of compensation. We need shorter contracts so we can align pay with performance, and we need to get a little bit more competitive. It’s not brain surgery,” Stern said in a matter-of-fact tone. He added very specifically that the NBA expects the players to take an 8% pay cut, reducing their total share of revenue from $2.2 billion to $2 billion (my math shows that to actually be 9%).
Stern cited the NFL’s revenue sharing as something to aspire to so that franchises aren’t inhibited from competing for championships solely because of the markets they play in, surprising Simmons by noting that the Lakers, Bulls, and Knicks “fundamentally say that we depend on other teams to come into our building and we are prepared to share revenue.” Stern admitted that in this arrangement contraction would be a realistic route, shockingly saying that the union would potentially be on board despite the fact that it would cost the players 30 of their 480 jobs.
Simmons said that the NBA is leaving money on the table by not having sponsors on its jerseys while Stern replied that there is a finite pool of endorsement dollars that would merely be allocated differently as opposed to grow if this were to occur. For whatever reason, Simmons failed to bring up the substantial amount of money that is and has been lost on the WNBA, an obvious blight on resources that I have to imagine was explicitly forbidden from being discussed as a pre-condition for access to Stern.
As I alluded to before, though, Stern is so compelling that we often forget that he is willing to stretch or obfuscate the truth to advance his agenda. He said that the players have won the last three CBA negotiations when in 1999 the owners were widely lauded as emerging victorious in securing a new structure for cost control. Stern repeatedly references opening the league’s books to the union and says that the numbers are “undisputed.” In a comprehensive analysis on his NY Times FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver notes that the “the NBA’s claims of financial hardship should be viewed more skeptically,” and that it may have used accounting tricks to exaggerate its losses.
Put another way, ESPN’s Ric Bucher recently tweeted, “Add: if NBA teams had really lost nearly $1 billion over the last three years, wouldn’t the negotiator of that bad deal be out of a job?” FoxSports’s Jason Whitlock, meanwhile, thinks that the owners are making a power play to squeeze every drop of what will be a lucrative next television deal as sports become the only programming that people watch live instead of DVR’ing: “The owners want to crush the NBA players union and get the players to agree to a 10-year deal that will in no way reflect the value of the league once the owners negotiate new television packages in five years.”
None of this is to suggest that Stern has done a poor job as NBA commissioner or that the NBA’s CBA does not need fixing. Stern has presided over an era of unfathomable growth since taking over as NBA commissioner in 1984. If it has not already done so, the NBA is on fast track to pass baseball as the 2nd most popular in the United States and has by far the biggest international following of any American sport. Stern is correct that guaranteed contracts should be shorter in order to better align performance with pay and that revenue sharing should be addressed immediately to ensure competitive balance.
However, in exaggerating the extent of the league’s “dire” financial situation (has a franchise EVER been sold at a loss?) and attempting to unilaterally assert his will, Stern is behaving more as a bully than as a reasonable counterparty who is negotiating with the players’ union in good faith. If some of his arguments are shown to be exaggerated and untrue, his overall message that the league needs to reform its economic structure to be competitive on a domestic and international playing field is weakened as opposed to enhanced.
Stern knows exactly what he is doing; we learned in 1999 that even some of the wealthiest players are so fiscally irresponsible that they live paycheck to paycheck and can be coerced into a crappy deal as soon as their profligate lifestyle is compromised. The billionaire owners can afford to wait out the millionaire players and if the league is actually losing money then it profits in the very short run from a loss of games while the players lose everything. That being said, just because the owners CAN railroad the players does not mean they should. The NBA has tremendous momentum right now; it has a wide array of talented, marketable stars, a higher number of great teams that are fun to watch and have the ability to compete for the championship than ever before, and is coming off the most compelling playoffs in recent memory.
Just as he lauds the NFL in its revenue sharing and competitive balance, Stern should be striving to emulate what Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith accomplished this offseason: collaborative CBA negotiations that reached a fair deal for both sides and did not miss any preseason or regular season play. The NBA owners and players need to be addressing this situation with more urgency and more of a willingness to get a deal done where concessions are made and games are not lost. Stern’s ultimate legacy will take a huge hit if this season is lost; hopefully he will have the foresight and humility to treat the players as partners in these negotiations instead of enemy combatants that he is trying to squeeze every last dime out of.