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Where is the eventual middle ground of players/owners deal?

Aug 26, 2011, 2:44 PM EDT

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Right now, the NBA owners are playing hardball and the players are playing goalie. The owners want to change the system, the players are trying to keep as much of the current system as they can. Both sides are dug in.

Eventually there will be a deal. The question is, where will the eventual middle ground be?

A guy with maybe the best grasp on this in the media is NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement guru Larry Coon — he of the Salary Cap FAQ, ESPN and a friend of this site. He spelled out where he thinks the middle ground will be in speaking with Eric Pincus at Hoopsworld.

But to get to the end game, we need to talk about the beginning.

The real issue in the talks is not contract lengths or a hard cap, it is about how the whole pie gets divided. In the last NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players got 57 percent of the NBA’s revenues in salary no matter what — last season salaries did not reach that level so the owners had to write an additional check to reach that threshold. The players will argue that not all the money the owners make goes into that split, and the real number is close to 50 percent of the league’s revenue goes to the players.

Doesn’t matter. The owners want a larger slice of the pie and right now are playing hardball to get it. Coon lays it out.

“The owners are seeking a significant reduction in the players’ share of the pie,” said Coon. “They don’t care whether they get it immediately (salary rollbacks) or over time (freezing total compensation at $2 billion for 10 years) as long as they get it.”

Coon also thinks the owners have the most leverage in these talks because they can hold out without games longer than the players. More than one owner is willing to sacrifice the season to reach their goals.

“The owners have most of the leverage in this dispute, so the players can’t expect to reach a compromise that splits their differences right down the middle,” said Coon. “Make no mistake — the new CBA will tilt heavily in favor of the owners. Without an unexpected bail-out from the (National Labor Relations Board, where the players filed a complaint), the players eventually will be forced to choose between accepting a deal they don’t like, continuing to wait (without income) for a better deal that may never come, or rolling the dice with decertification and an antitrust lawsuit.”

While some agents have pushed for decertification, the union has not gone there. Yet.

So where do we end up once they get around to a deal?

“A likely end-point in the dispute may be a system that preserves guaranteed contracts and the current soft cap, but eliminates or reduces many of the exceptions that allowed teams to spend with wild abandon. The new CBA could see a reduction in contract lengths, the elimination of sign-and-trade deals, and the relaxation of trade rules. As long as the players’ overall revenue guarantee is significantly reduced, the owners can make it work.”

The bottom line, the players can keep the current system but have to give up slices of the pie to do so (which will mean lower salaries or a shrunk middle class). Right now they are not willing to do so, but that will change. Eventually.

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