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A Look At The NBA's Labor Troubles


For only the second time in its history, the NBA will lose regular season games because of a labor dispute. The first two weeks of the season have been eliminated, as players and owners continue to haggle over how to slice the basketball pie. Right now, 57 percent of league revenue goes to players' salaries and owners want that percentage to come way down.

NPR's Mike Pesca is with us to explain. Hi, Mike.


RAZ: So the NFL, of course, went through a labor disagreement this year, didn't lose any games. Should we take the loss of NBA games to mean that pro basketball's economic situation is a lot worse than pro football's?

PESCA: Well, there is that. I mean, the NFL is culturally ascendant and a cash cow and the NBA is at best a cash - I don't know - goat.


PESCA: A sickly goat, at that. Not every team is losing money. Officially, they claim that 22 of the 30 teams are losing money. But the NBA was hit a bit harder by the economic downturn. There's usually about 90 percent attendance in NBA arenas and it's a fact that the NBA isn't very financially healthy. So that is definitely something that's true.

I think that NBA players should be very careful about saying, well, the NFL did almost a similar labor dispute to what we did and they survived and they were fine. I think public sympathy was much more on the side of the NFL players because NFL players put their bodies on the line. They have very short careers, three years on average. And their average salary is just over a million dollars.

Whereas NBA players' average salary is between five and $6 million and it's not as physically grueling. So if they think it's going to be exactly the same situation as the NFL, the NBA players may be in for a surprise.

RAZ: Mike, both the NBA and the players say they regret the loss of games, of course, about two weeks but that the other side's proposal was just unacceptable. So who do you think has the better argument?

PESCA: Well, it's tough to judge, of course, and that would be buying into a lot of their assumptions. I mean, the players, their initial bargaining position was we'll give back four percent of what we were getting the last collective bargaining agreement. They simply do not believe that the owners are as poor as the owners are saying.

If you take the owners' argument at face value, then why wouldn't they want to lose games? Every game is just a chance to lose more money. But there are very good reasons why you shouldn't take it as face value. Among them are the fact that to compare earnings is a little disingenuous, because even if NBA teams break even on the ledger sheet, the resale value of franchises is usually very good.

So an owner could not technically make any money for the entire length of owning a team and then sell his team at a huge profit, 'cause a lot of people like owning NBA teams.

RAZ: Mike, how would a truncated NBA schedule work?

PESCA: It worked in 1998-'99. We should just call it in '99 because they lost the first few months of the season. Fifty games were played. I have to tell you, people don't look back and say, oh, the Spurs that won the championship that year, they weren't a real championship team. They don't say that the Spurs really have fewer championships than they have.

I mean, it was seen as a legitimate season. Fifty games are a lot. You could do a lot with 50 games. And they would have a full playoff schedule, presumably.

RAZ: Is there any way we could lose an entire season of pro basketball, though?

PESCA: Talking to experts, they think it's unlikely. Even though right now it seems dire and the sides portray themselves as so far apart, there comes a time when players realize we are never going to get this money back. And owners, though they're crying poor, they're never going to get this money back.

So you rattle the sabers as much as you can and maybe you come to a deal, hopefully in the next few weeks.

RAZ: Mike, thanks.

PESCA: You're welcome.

RAZ: That's NPR's Mike Pesca in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.