Notes on a lockout

Benjamin Polk —  July 31, 2011 — 6 Comments

For the past few weeks now, I’ve been struggling to know what exactly to say about this NBA lockout. Besides the Wolves’ quixotic coaching search, its clearly the league’s most pressing current issue, replacing the things that most of us like to talk about with things that require an economics or business degree to understand. Needless to say, neither of those were really my thing back in school. Instead, I took a lot of philosophy classes and enthusiastically tried to pretend I knew what Heidegger and Foucault were talking about. And although I think this probably made me a better more thoughtful person, it didn’t exactly prepare me to intelligently discuss amortization as it relates to the NBA’s obscure finances. I don’t really even know what that means.

Still, it strikes me that, for a few reasons, this labor conflict is kind of important and bears a little discussion, even from a non-expert like me. So get ready for some thoughts!

Thought 1:  I find it really strange and interesting that so many of these standoffs have occurred within the same few month span: the NFL and NBA lockouts; Wisconsin’s government workers’ standoff; the Minnesota government shutdown; these appalling debt ceiling negotiations. I don’t know if there’s that much interesting to say here except that, although the lockout is discouraging and I really would like for the NBA to have a season, thinking about it is so much more pleasant than thinking about any of these other crushingly demoralizing situations.

Thought 2:  Realize that since 2005 (when the league says it last made money), while player salaries have remained even with inflation, owners’ operating costs have been going up at five times the rate of inflation. And realize also that the 57% of BRI that the players make every year is only slightly higher than the percentage of revenue earned by players in the other major pro leagues.

In many ways this strikes me as more important than the debate about whether or not the NBA actually lost $300 million over the past season, a debate which is actually impossible to understand without a) actually being able to see the league’s books (which we can’t) and b) (most importantly) that pesky econ degree. Because this lockout is all about player salaries; and even if the league is losing money, its not player salaries that are causing it.

And so, while the owners could examine other problems with its business model–like the unambitious TV deal the league signed in 2007, or the other ways in which owners’ operating costs have skyrocketed (I’m looking at you $20 towels!)–it’s utterly classic (as in, like, volume one of “Das Kapital” classic) that they are attempting to solve their financial puzzle by reaching into their employees’ pockets, as if the quality of the league’s “product”–that product being professional basketball played with sublime skill, creativity and athleticism–were not almost completely dependent on the extraordinarily uncommon gifts and yeoman’s efforts of those employees.

Thought 3: It seems to me that the league has been semantically unclear as to whether the real issue is financial or competitive parity. And I would think that this is probably intentional. After all, it sounds much more high-minded to say that teams like the Wolves, Clippers, Wizards, Kings, Warriors and Hornets deserve the chance to compete for a title (although the idea that competitive parity is inherently better for the league is far from settled) than to say that those teams deserve to be profitable. (It seems very wise indeed that Stern has downplayed the thread of the owners’ argument that holds these businesses have some inherent right to turn a profit.)

In many ways, though, the two problems are very similar and resolve themselves into one larger problem: that those teams (and many others) have been badly run. They have spent money foolishly, on player salaries and other things; or they have ignored statistical evidence in player evaluation; or they have made baffling business decisions (like, say, moving your team into the league’s smallest market, and an economically depressed one with no particular interest in professional basketball at that); I could go on. In other words, these teams don’t deserve wins and they don’t deserve to make money. 

Thought 4: There’s something schizophrenic about our response, as fans, to this lockout. Despite our protests to the contrary, we really want a certain professionalism from our professional athletes. We want them to do things that normal people can’t do, to glow with an almost post-human physicality.  We want the game to be played at that elite level of skill, a level of skill that can only be achieved when lots and lots of people spend their entire young lives aspiring to it.

We also seem to want pro sports tightly packaged and highly polished: spectacular and accessible and easy to consume. In other words, we want–or at least expect–sports to be bought and sold like other consumer entertainments. We show this desire, this expectation, with our consumer behavior, with our willingness to pay money to see the game on television, and in our demand for an ever more transcendent spectacle on our screens.

At the same time, though, we fulminate against the greed on both sides of the dispute. We complain about outsized player salaries and about billionaire owners scrounging for loose change in the players’ coffers. But aren’t conflicts like this exactly what we might expect given the professionalized and highly capitalized structure of the game? What group of employees, given a frighteningly short and precarious professional life (and that above level of myopic lifelong dedication and effort) would not hold out for every last dollar available to them? And what rational capitalist (it hurts me a little to write this) would not make every effort to maximize his business’ profit, regardless of the public’s view of those efforts’ justice?

Thus our divided mind. We want the NBA to act like any consumer product. And yet our reactions betray our sense of loss and our sense of injustice at what consumer capitalism does to the things that we love. We want the game commodified but we find the results of that commodification distasteful. We don’t see that the two phenomena are part of the very same structure. We don’t see that this is exactly what we paid for.

Benjamin Polk

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6 responses to Notes on a lockout

  1. Really intelligent, incisive analysis, as always.

  2. Thanks, thats very kind.

  3. I think the biggest thing missing from the whole lockout is the fans. Samller salaries to the players only helps the owners. Never is it mentioned that chargein less for their product would help get more people to games, sell more jersey’s, and make the whole league look better for understanding that the enconmy and stability of it in America today makes it hard on their fans to purchase their product. The owners seem greedy and so to do the players. While the whole time all that money they are fighting over never translates back to the fans. A year lockout could hurt the league more then both sides realize. Once settled they will have to convince us to come back. It could be a much smaller market that is willing to pay. The money they, Owners and players, end up losing could be far more then they bargined for.

  4. You are absolutely right. Of course both sides talk about the fans and make veiled appeals to them during labor strife, but as long as the league’s financial model is based around increasing revenues at all costs, the owners will never have the incentive to make things easier on normal people (owners besides, like, Glen Taylor who have to beg people to come to the games). Perhaps you’re right and a smaller post-lockout market will change things. But I’m not betting on it.

  5. I am from a big market team, but find this one of the most intelligent reviews of the current situation I have read. There is nothing here that even mentions the disadvantage that small markets have when compared with big markets, however, that financial fact hovers over this entire negotiation.

    My opinion is that the owners cannot honestly address any player issues before they resolve their own profit sharing problems. No matter how much the players are forced to give back, the vast inequity between, say New York and Minneapolis’ will make the smaller market struggle to compete in each and every year. It is hard to continue when you are relying on the ‘big guys’ to make stupid mistakes to provide you an avenue to reach a title chance.

    From this opinion, I come to the conclusion I am completely on the player’s side, until and unless the owners get their own financial house in order.

  6. You’re right, that’s a complicated issue that I didn’t really touch on mostly because it’s not clear to me whether revenue sharing will actually solve the league’s problems. That said, I do like this proposal here. The idea is that teams share only a portion of their revenue from local TV deals, a huge financial imbalance between teams that stems simply from geography alone.

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