The NBA lockout drags on with games canceled this week.
On Tuesday a federal mediator will meet with the sides in New York. A mediator is not someone empowered to force the sides to compromise — as in binding arbitration. Good mediators are skilled at moving between two groups in conflict and painting apocalyptic visions of a future in which they do not settle.
He conveys offers back and forth between parties that are in different rooms. He cajoles and threatens hour after hour until an agreement is reached. The process can be grueling for everyone involved. Even if there is not an agreement, the mediator may have forced the parties to show their hand in a way that narrows the gap and leads to a future settlement. It is a good sign that the parties agreed to mediate.
David Stern has predicted that if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached by Tuesday, games won’t be played on Christmas. He is a combative and aggressive negotiator for the owners, who has laid out the NBA position publicly in an attempt to get fans angry at players for their large salaries. He knows these are tough economic times and the public has little sympathy for a battle that pits millionaires and billionaires.
The NFL was very shrewd in keeping a news blackout on their talks, as were the players. For a major economic dispute involving billions of dollars, there were very few statements made by the sides to publicly paint the players or owners as villains. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was intentionally very bland in his stance other than predicting a deal would be done.
The problem with demonizing the other side is that it does real damage to the brand of the sport. It breaks down the delicate bond between fans and sports. When the last major league baseball strike was done, fan loyalty was seriously impacted. Attendance dropped the next season, and it took the steroid (allegedly) fueled home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to bring it back.
My book “Winning With Integrity” outlines how deadlock and conflict hardens positions and prevents a win-win result. It is the same impulse toward passionate self justification and vilification of the other side that leads to war, divorce and other dire consequences. It is necessary to put yourself in the other parties heart and mind and see the world the way they see it. It requires creative minds engaged in a process that will respect the other parties goals and priorities.
PT Barnum said “The show must go on.” Every two weeks that games are canceled, players and owners lose money. There are thousands of stadium vendors, adjacent businesses, television, advertisers and many other victims who don’t have a voice in the matter.
And how much is the average sports fan suffering without preseason training camps and exhibition games? Not much and therein lies a lack of external pressure. This weekend there will be a cornucopia of exciting sports experiences, in person and on television. High school, collegiate and NFL football have a loaded schedule. The MLB playoffs have been exciting. The NHL is playing, as is soccer.
The remaining issues are both economic and structural. According to multiple reports, the players have dropped their demand for percentage of revenue to 53%, the official position of the owners is 47% but they have hinted at coming to 50%. Worst case, this is a difference of $120 million the first year, which is not an insurmountable hurdle in a massive CBA.
The NBA, unlike the NFL, has a “soft cap.” In the NFL teams are not allowed to spend beyond their cap limit and are not allowed to sign players if they are over the cap, and given limited time to get under.
While everything in sports business only happens under the pressure of deadlines, it is inexplicable why the parties would allow a month to pass in the summer while they didn’t communicate. When people think that things can’t get worse, they assuredly can. The goal is to keep the NBA popular with fans, develop as many ancillary revenue streams as possible, and grow the pie. But a group of owners is so convinced that they stand to lose money under the current system, they would rather not agree to play games until they get their way. Players are desperately trying to hold on to gains they have made in the past.
When two parties get locked in, unintended consequences ensue. This mediator has his work cut out for him.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.