The anxiety of both players and owners is going up as time moves on without a new collective bargaining agreement in the NBA.

One factor that hasn’t been talked about much is a pending National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that could come any day. The players filed charges in May claiming the owners “were not interested in making an agreement in the early bargaining, were deliberately scheming to initiate their lockout at the earliest possible moment, and are exaggerating their financial plight.” See “The NLRB Hammer and the NBA Lockout.” According to ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson, if the players prevail the owners “may face court action that will end their lockout.” Obviously, that would mightily enhance the players’ leverage. If the owners win the NLRB case they would have the hammer and could keep canceling games until the players cave in completely. Players’ careers are short and they’d likely scramble for any deal with the owners if the NLRB ruling is unfavorable.

Meanwhile, the owners are considering replacement players (not likely) and the players are looking at overseas options as well as creating a players’ league to rival the NBA. The owners enjoy their monopoly status and don’t want to deal with any competitive threat, especially one in which the greatest basketball players in the world are also the owners. However, a players’ league would be an organizational nightmare for players and an enormous risk. (See “Power to the People.” ) The NBA is a powerful brand and that’s where basketball fans want to turn for their pro basketball. The history of new pro sports leagues isn’t very good.

The longer this lockout goes on, the more it favors the owners. Due to their short career windows, the players have the most to lose if the entire season is cancelled. Labor disputes are tough enough for the employee side but when the employees are up against a monopoly like the NBA the challenge is even greater. The fact that quite a few players have already signed contracts with European or Chinese teams is definitely a concern for owners but probably not enough of one for them to sweeten their latest offer to the players. (Sidenote: NBA owners’ initial offer to players was 37 percent of basketball related income (BRI), down from 57 percent in the prior contract. They’ve come up to 50 percent of BRI but are adamant they aren’t budging from that.)

There’s no telling when the NLRB ruling will come down but the players need it to happen quickly and in their favor. Without a positive NLRB ruling, it appears the only question is how much worse will the new collective bargaining agreement be for the NBA players.

For fans who just want to see games again, this is probably the best-case scenario: Both the players and owners have concerns about what the NLRB ruling might be and how it could impact their side. Both sides would like to get a deal done before the NLRB ruling is made. So, the best chance for NBA games to take place in the near future is for the NLRB cloud hanging over both sides to provide enough incentive to both parties that a deal can get done soon.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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