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Forbes: Salary caps help make rich owners richer, poor poorer

Dec 2, 2010, 9:56 AM EDT

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As we watch NBA owners and the Players Association play a game of chicken with our favorite sport, here comes a very interesting article out of Forbes (via Hardball Talk).

Part of that CBA debate will be about the salary cap — keep the soft cap with exceptions that exists now or move to a more NHL/NFL style hard cap. Some owners favor the hard cap as a way to control costs.

But smaller market owners hurt themselves with a cap and the current revenue sharing system, says Matt Ozanian of Forbes (who writes about all league finances for the magazine).

Tying team payrolls to league-wide revenue (currently about 50% of total revenue goes towards player compensation and benefits in each of four leagues) has served to make high-revenue teams enormously profitable and low-revenue teams unprofitable, or marginally so, relative to their rivals. The growing distortion in profitability has resulted in a bigger gap in team values…

The NBA had total operating income of $234 million during the 2008-09 season (our 2010 valuations and profits will be published in February). But three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons) accounted for 64% of the league’s profits and 12 teams lost money. So billionaire Michael Ilitch is reportedly pondering buying the Pistons for some $400 million while Michael Jordan snapped up the money-losing Charlotte Bobcats for just $175 million in March.

The conventional wisdom is that salary caps benefit poorer teams. But in reality they benefit richer teams more. The owners know this, of course. Which is why the real bare knuckles fighting in the current collective bargaining negotiations in these three sports is among owners.

As we have said before, if you’re serious about bringing more parity to the NBA — and we’re not sure that you really can in basketball where one player can so dominate the course of a game, nor are we convinced that parity is good for the NBA in the way it has been for the NFL — than the real issue is revenue sharing by the owners. David Stern has said the owners are seriously discussing it and that “more robust” revenue sharing is on a parallel track with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

But if it is on a true parallel track, then those discussions are stalled because of disagreements about how and how much money should be shared. A parallel track would mean they are talking but nowhere near a consensus.

Still, the thought of a bunch of very rich Republican owners in a room crying out for a more socialist system always amuses me.

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