Taking One for the Team
Casey explains how basketball could weather the economic storm.
by Casey Jacobsen
This past summer, I was leaving a gym in Park City, UT after a workout when I bumped into a guy who somehow knew who I was. I hardly ever get recognized, so I knew this guy was either a distant cousin of mine who I didn’t recognize, or he was a basketball junkie. His name is David Locke, and he was the latter. But rather than go on ESPN’s Stump the Schwab, David has applied his otherwise useless knowledge into a career in broadcasting.
He is currently the radio guy for the Utah Jazz, as well as hosting his own radio show in Salt Lake City. We got to talking and after a while, we started discussing the economy and the current state of the NBA. David proposed a plan to help the NBA not only stabilize their fortunes, but also possibly make more money and gain more fans. He asked, “What if all the players, coaches and owners of NBA franchises got together and made a pact that everyone will take a 10 percent pay cut the next two seasons? The way things are in this economy, there can only be a handful of teams making money right now. Then, they could lower ticket prices and keep the arenas full without losing money. Is something like this possible in the NBA?” The answer came to me in a nano-second: not in my lifetime.
After we shook hands and I drove home, I couldn’t help but think of David Locke’s proposal. It was so simple, yet so difficult. When I got the opportunity to write a blog for SLAMonline, these are the types of things that I wanted to write about.
Why is it that an idea like this is so impossible to realize?
When I was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2002, I volunteered to be the team representative in the NBA Players Association/Union. I thought it would be interesting to hear about how the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) works, where all of the endorsement money goes, and to gain a general knowledge of the business side of basketball. After three years of sitting in on those meetings, it is very clear that giving back 10 percent would impossible. The CBA is a contract between the players and the team owners and amongst other things, and it stipulates that all contracts must be honored on both sides. That is why it doesn’t matter that 50 percent of the New York Knicks roster should be in Europe (with me) playing for a fraction of what they get paid now. The owners signed those players, and they must pay them, unless they go ‘Latrell Sprewell’ on Coach D’Antoni and void their contract. Even though the CBA is ironclad, the current state of the economy makes this a special circumstance.
Even if you could get pass the CBA contract, there is no chance that today’s NBA players would voluntarily give up that much money. What’s in it for them? The average career in the NBA is around four years (which is what I played) and so players have this feeling that they must capitalize now on their earning power because you never know when an injury will derail your career. This is the exact reason why you see so many NFL training camp ‘holdouts.’ Careers only last so long, but the idea is if you make enough money now, you will be taken care of for the rest of your life. (Note: This argument is only valid if an athlete saves most of his earnings… which is another blog-entry waiting to happen.) It is a lot to ask a 23-year-old player to give up money he is due, even if he is making millions of dollars. Regardless of whether or not you feel NBA players are overpaid, would you give up some of your salary for the greater good?
I still believe this to be a good idea and a part of me thinks that the NBA does too. These are special circumstances. The world economy is in trouble, yet NBA salaries continue to rise year after year. Something has to give. This should be a time when the NBA has to look at what is going on and make a real decision. The fans are the ones who suffer the most. Nobody can justify spending thousands of dollars on season tickets to watch Steve Nash and the Suns play when they might have trouble making their mortgage payments this year.
The NBA as a whole is struggling to get their seats filled. The Lakers, Spurs and Cavs will sell out regardless of the economy, but what about the rest of the League? Do you think people in Detroit are buying up season tickets to the Pistons any time soon? Or New Orleans? Or OK City? This idea of giving back 10 percent would help those fans right now. It would send a message to them that NBA players, although rich and sometimes spoiled, do care about the community that supports them.
It’s been a profitable, successful league for many decades now, but we haven’t seen a financial depression like this in over 30 years. Thirty years ago, players weren’t making nearly the amount of money that they do now. If the NBA doesn’t do something quickly, I believe it will have a serious issue on its hands. Players better be ready to reduce their asking prices in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement or there will be a lockout. If you think the NBA economy is struggling now, wait until there is another work stoppage.
I know this idea will never be realized. I know that there is too much red tape that must be cut through to even attempt something like this. But when I think about it, the idea isn’t really that drastic. There have been measures taken by NBA teams to survive this economic downturn. I recently read that the Miami Heat have asked their employees, including Pat Riley and head coach Eric Spoelstra, to agree to 20 percent pay cuts in order to avoid having to lay off countless others. The article said that “player salaries were unaffected.” Another article revealed the Charlotte Bobcats laid off 35 employees recently and NBA Commissioner David Stern said that 9 percent of the League office has been let go. Most teams have reduced their season ticket prices due to a decline in demand. This economic depression has affected almost every single aspect of the game, but player salaries haven’t budged at all. I do understand that free agents right now are finding it difficult to get the kind of money they want because of the economy, but the players already signed don’t have to worry at all.
You could say that it is easy for me to write this because I’m not a part of the NBA anymore. But the economy of European Basketball has been hit just as hard as the NBA, if not harder. Because of the dependency that many teams out here have on sponsorships, many organizations have had their budgets slashed. As a free agent this past summer, I had to take a pay cut. I knew it would be this way before the summer started and I accepted it. A good friend of mine who plays in Germany was asked by his team (he was already under contract for two years) to take a 20 percent pay cut. He didn’t like it, but his team would have struggled to pay him otherwise. He understood that these are difficult times and so he “took one for the team.”
Another team in Dusseldorf, Germany, wanted to sign former Penn University player Koko Archibong but didn’t have enough money. The players at Dusseldorf, who thought Archibong could really help them win this coming season, got together and decided to give up parts of their salary in order to sign him. I’ve never heard of anything like this before in pro sports. It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Rudy” when all of the starters for Notre Dame lay down their uniforms on the coach’s desk, sacrificing their own playing time to allow Rudy the chance to play in his last game. That movie had a very happy ending. I don’t see that same result in the NBA’s version. I hope I’m wrong.
Casey Jacobsen is a former SLAM High School First Team All-American and NCAA First Team All-American. He currently plays for Brose Baskets in Bamberg, Germany.