Market Watch

by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports

LeBron James, with his uncanny mix of size and speed, stands alone on the court. He also stands alone when it comes to his assessment of the NBA lockout. “I’m optimistic that we will have a season this year,” James said recently. “Very optimistic.” LeBron is also optimistic that pigs will develop wings, the US economy will turn around and that he will develop a post game. No one else on earth holds hope that the lockout will end anytime soon. David Stern himself said after an August negotiating session, “I don’t feel optimistic. I don’t feel optimistic about the players’ willingness to engage in a serious way.” He then said that he believed that the players were negotiating in bad faith.

I’m sure by now many NBA fans resemble Matt Geiger after pulling out their hair in meaty clumps. How can a League coming off a season in which it scored an all-time revenue high of $4.3 billion, with the fifth-highest attendance ever and record Playoff ratings, be in such a crisis? Why is this golden goose being plucked, deep fried and sold like McNuggets? Are fans powerless to do nothing but get excited about hockey?

First thing’s first: We need to wipe away the spin and talk hard truth about the “financial crisis” gripping the NBA. Yes, it’s true that as few as 17 and perhaps as many as 23 teams lost money last year. But what isn’t true is the fallacy floating around that the League lost money on the whole. If you factor in the massive television deals of big market teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls, the coffers runneth over. The problem is that while the big markets are flush with television cash, the small markets are dying a slow-to-medium speed death. In other words, you have a uniform salary system—every team has the same cap space—yet a dizzying variety of financial health for different teams. It takes Portland 10 years to earn the television money that the Lakers make in one. The answer is not, therefore, shutting down most or all of the season as David Stern seems intent upon doing, but sharing television revenue. The NFL does this and as a result, the Green Bay Packers feel like they have a chance every year. Stern speaks often about “guaranteeing profitability” for every franchise but is taking the easy route—going after players’ salaries—instead of actually waging an argument with James Dolan, Jerry Buss and Jerry Reinsdorf that for the future of the League, they need to start divvying up their cash.

What I just wrote isn’t opinion. It’s fact. Revenue sharing would end a very real financial crisis in the League we love as well as set up small-market teams with intriguing talent—Sacramento, Memphis—to compete every year. The players are getting jacked and the fans are as well. The players can do something about it: Stay united, go overseas for leverage and speak to the reality that if they’re locked out, the fans, the team employees, the stadium workers, get locked out as well. They should follow the model of Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton who donated thousands of dollars to the families of L.A. team employees suffering from the lockout. A little public relations, especially in tough economic times, goes a long way.

As for fans, we can’t be passive in the face of what’s happening. If someone came into your house and took your television, you’d do something. Well, considering that on weekdays, NBA TV is on my TV more than every other possible show combined, David Stern might as well have jimmied open my door and jacked my set. We are the people who pay for the tickets, pay for NBA TV and—whether we’re fans or not—pay for the stadiums. Our voices won’t be heard unless we organize. I’ve joined a group called the Sports Fans Coalition to aim and pressure Stern and the NBA brass until they come back to the negotiating table and get to work. Joining costs nothing except some time to actually do some organizing to get the League back on the court. I welcome all Louder Than a Bomb readers to do the same. If we want to see ball in ’11-12, silence is not an option.