If the NBA Contract Storm Breaks…
Who gets wet?
by Clay Kallam
David Stern’s doom-and-gloom assessment of the NBA’s financial situation is, of course, primarily a negotiating tactic – but there’s more than a little substance underlying the posturing.
It’s clearly not a good time for any industry that relies on discretionary spending, and the cost of attending an NBA game will get almost anyone’s attention. The Team Marketing Report’s October 2008 figure of $291.93 for a party of four to go to an average game, buy some beer, a hot dog and some souvenirs, is pretty sobering. (I’m a big basketball fan, but I can think of a lot of fun things for a group to do that don’t cost $291.93 – especially since I can watch an NBA game on TV almost any night of the week pretty much for free.)
TV rights are not insignificant, but aside from the NFL, actual fans in the seats are the main source of income for professional teams. And though the attendance hit for the League hasn’t been as much as expected, still a 1.7 percent drop is more than just pocket change.
Again, though Stern’s numbers are certainly cooked to favor the League (accountants can turn profit-and-loss statements into marvelous works of fiction, given enough incentive), the reality is that the gravy train no longer pulls into the station as often as it once did. Just like almost every other business in the country, things aren’t going nearly as well as they were just a few years ago, and nobody in the NBA should expect to make as much money as they did in 2005.
The negotiations, of course, will focus on who takes the bigger hit, the owners or the players. Both will have to settle for making less, but the zero-sum game of splitting up a smaller pie will feature two sides of very rich people saying ugly things and threatening lockouts and strikes.
Some passionate fans will get into the whole process, but for most, it’s just a necessary, and not all that fascinating, sideshow. Eventually, a deal will get done, even if a season is lost, and then the games will go on again – and the games are what matters, after all.
But there will be collateral damage, and it’s not only possible but likely that any kind of work stoppage would kill off a couple franchises. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably good news, as having 28 teams (or even 24) would make every roster stronger, every game better, and markedly improve the quality of the product (which, contrary to what some arena operators seem to believe, is not loud music at every opportunity, goofy mascots or constant sensory bombardment, but rather the game of basketball). Sacramento and Charlotte could well join the Rochester Royals in the dustbin of NBA history, and aside from a cadre of true believers in each city, would anyone truly miss them?
Another possible casualty would be the WNBA, which does get some support from the NBA, but it’s just as likely the women’s league would benefit from an NBA work stoppage as be hurt by it. First, the WNBA would not be affected the men’s contract negotiations, and the games would go on – and those games would become relatively much more valuable if, for a season, 41 arena dates are missing from metropolitan entertainment calendars.
Second, the modestly paid WNBA players (max salary of $90,000) and their gritty, team-oriented style would look even better in the light of really rich young players and really rich old guys cat-fighting over how to split a billion dollars a year. There won’t be a horde of fans switching to the WNBA, but there might be a few, and there actually will be more reasons for the NBA to support the WNBA if the men are on hiatus (keeping the gamblers happy, generating some positive publicity, etc.).
Finally, if the NBA is losing $200 million a year, the losses it absorbs from the WNBA aren’t really enough to make a difference. It’s never been exactly clear how much support the WNBA gets from big brother, but if it’s $20 million annually, it would be a surprise – so would it make sense to save some pennies on the WNBA when it can still make money for NBA teams that operate arenas and serve as a PR forum for pro basketball?
Of course, the answer isn’t certain, but there is clearly a case to be made that the WNBA, and the D-League, could both benefit from some kind of a work stoppage. Pro basketball as a whole would suffer, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail before arenas go dark, but as always, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.