The NBA is in trouble, the problem is that the NBA doesn't seem to know it yet...
There is going to be a lockout in 2011. 21 of 30 NBA teams lost money this season. Arenas are empty, and advertising dollars are disappearing. There is going to be little alternative for the owners, but to force the player out and negotiate down the current economic model that exists in the NBA. The lockout is going to be ugly. The good news for the NBA is that it might not last long.
The NHL lost a season, and a TV contract to the lockout that it went through. The difference between the NHL and the NBA? Money. While the NBA generates far more revenues than the smaller NHL, the players in the NHL are more fiscally responsible in comparison to their counterparts in the NBA. Sports Illustrated wrote an interesting piece concerning the NBA players after retirement. Four out of five NBA players have gone bankrupt after retiring from the NBA. That number is shocking! Many of the players in the NBA who are making millions of dollars a year are living paycheck to paycheck. Explaining the now infamous Latrell Sprewell rant about having money to feed his family. Or Scottie Pippen running out of money after retirement and trying to come back to the NBA. The financial troubles of the NBA players will play to the favor of the owners in the NBA.
The owners can wait out the NBA players as they start to go broke due to their lack of funds. Half the battle that takes place in a labor dispute is the public perception of the dispute. Historically the side that conveys itself better to the general public is able to come out ahead of the labor disputes. With a weakening economy the public is already back lashing against the NBA. Ticket sales are down, ratings are down versus past years, and teams are bleeding money. How much of this is due to resentment of millionaires complaining about be under-payed can't be measured. Yet, if the new breaks that NBA players during the lockout are going broke, losing their homes, and can't support themselves, I don't know if there will be many public shoulders for the players to cry on. Even during the last labor dispute many players were short on cash, so the players banded together to raise so money. How? The players had a charity basketball game, yes charity money going to the downtrodden NBA player. Just as the game was terribly unpopular then, it would be an even bigger mistake for ex-millionaires to ask the public for a handout now. (Just ask any AIG employee how popular they are with their neighbors right now).
When the players are weak the owners will go in for the kill. The owners should ask for no guaranteed contracts, a hard salary cap, lower rookie salary scale, and a smaller increase in the pay scale for free agents. If the owners were smart they would use the crisis to reinvent the economic model of the NBA. They would take many tips from the NFL model, which includes a very weak players union. Sure the sport will take a hit. No fan likes to see game delay or canceled due to labor disputes. The NHL lockout almost killed the sport. Yet, the owners need to make some changes if they want to make the NBA into a profitable sports entertainment entity.
Is there anyway to avoid the lockout? Sure. In fact the players would come out way ahead if they willingly accepted some concessions to the current collective bargaining agreement. Not only would they end up with more money from the agreement, but they would also gain valuable PR points with the public. No lockout would mean the players wouldn't have to accept the bloodbath that would occur once they ran out of money and were force to cave to the owners demands. Also, if the owners were to reject the players compromises the public would side with the players, and the owners would lose all leverage of forcing all of their changes through during the lockout. Bottom line for the players, if the owners are making money then they will not make money. How much less will depend on how stubborn and stupid they are during negotiations.
In additions to the obvious economic ruin that the NBA is facing, the NBA needs to address other problems that is destroying the game.
- Poor officiating - The NBA suffers from a complete lack of constituency from their officials. There is far too much variance from officiating crew to officiating crew, or even the same official will make different calls depending on the night, location, and players playing in the game. The NBA still hasn't overcome the black-eye they received from the Tim Donaghy game fixing scandal. The NBA was allowed to do a in house investigation, and the media just accepted it as a job well done. There is no solid evidence of officials fixing games, but NBA officiating doesn't pass the smell test. There is still something fishy about the manner that games are officiated.
- Lack of team play - The NBA has created itself as a star-based-sport. It is about seeing Kobe, Lebron, or D-Wade. Yet, it makes for terrible basketball. The Bulls-Celtics series is a great example of this problem. How many times was a guy going one-on-four and simply crashing down the lane throwing up a garbage shot, and drawing a foul? How many times die players jack up a terrible three point shot after dribbling out the entire 24 second shot without passing the ball? Or How many times was the game sloppy and boring during the first three quarters of play? The play on the court wasn't that great. The series itself though was amazing. Yet, a great series doesn't equal great basketball. Bad basketball that happens to be close at the end of games does make for an interesting series to watch. Too often the teams play down to a street type of basketball, and coaching doesn't help them become something more.
- European Influence - Basketball is suffering from the European influence. There is too much soccer in the sport now. Flopping, lack of physical play, and tireless complaining. All of this makes for a terrible product to watch.
- ABC/ESPN has too much power - TNT is great. If there was a way that TNT could do all the games for the NBA, then the NBA would be a better product. ABC and ESPN forces story lines down the viewers throat. They have terrible announcers, annoying studio crews, and awful television productions of the games. (How many odd angles are the viewer force to see during a telecast? I can just picture the producer in the TV truck. "I know let get a camera from the opposite corner, ankle level. That way nobody can see what is going on in the game.") ESPN has made sportscenter highlights more important than the actual game. They endorse taunting, and showboating. (It is hilarious all the times that they will show a player taunting or showboating, with some studio guy saying, "They shouldn't do stuff like this, we don't support it." As Sportscenter then shows the clip about one to two hundred more times during the episode. The point of a telecast is to show the actual game, and not to influence it. Stop interviewing players before halftime, or the coaches between the breaks. We will all be better off without those lack of insight interviews.
There are many problems that the NBA need to fix to become a great sport again. It is frustrating to watch classic game from the 90's and 80's and see how great the game was, and then to watch the current product and see how they have nearly killed the golden goose. The NBA can be the most exciting and entertaining sport in the world, but they have to allow the game itself to take center stage.