Time to play ball off the court in NBA lockout

The tug-of-war between owners and players, as well as commissioner and owners, has been a poor substitute for watching the Dallas Mavericks take on the Chicago Bulls on opening night last week.

If cancelling opening night and the rest of the NBA calendar for November failed to prove how serious David Stern is about saving his owners' money, there is this: the commissioner reportedly fined Micky Arison, the Miami Heat owner, a cool US$500,000 (Dh1.84 million) for a tweet suggesting he was not one of the owners willing to sacrifice games to save money.

In response to someone who labelled the parties involved in the lockout "greedy … pigs", Arison tweeted: "Honestly u r barking at the wrong owner."

The tug of war between owners and players, as well as commissioner and owners, has been a poor substitute for watching the Dallas Mavericks raise last season's championship banner into the rafters before taking on the Chicago Bulls, one of three games originally scheduled for opening night last week.

Stern's levy on Arison marked the third time he has lightened an owner's wallet for talking out of turn about the lockout - Charlotte's Michael Jordan and Washington's Ted Leonsis had already contributed $100,000 each to league coffers. But the extra-heavy hit might reflect more than the commissioner's growing impatience with rule breakers.

Though Arison later endorsed the league's line about the tweet being taken out of context, it is clear that his real sin was exposing the owners' less-than-unified stance.

Arison paid plenty to bring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami and made plenty in return, not just for his franchise, but everywhere the Heat played last season.

Even if the league's claim that 22 teams are losing money is correct, successful teams such as the Heat, Knicks, Lakers and Bulls can't be thrilled with the prospect of losing an entire season of profits to help the poorer franchises squeeze a more favourable deal from the players.

But as desperate as the fine made Stern look in his bid to hold ownership together, he still has a much easier task at the moment than his counterparts at the union.

The 400-plus members of the players' association are being tugged in different directions by Billy Hunter, the executive director, and Derek Fisher, the president and veteran Los Angeles Lakers guard. They staked out different positions on the central question in the negotiations - what percentage of basketball revenues the players will settle for - and the campaigning behind the scenes has grown uglier by the day.

Fisher has been accused of secretly negotiating a deal with Stern to get the players to agree to a 50-50 split in exchange for a cushy job with the league down the road. The rumours grew so loud that he was forced to respond to the players in an e-mail, saying: "There have been no side agreements, no side negotiations or anything close."

For his part, Hunter has been adamant about the players keeping 52 per cent of revenue - a drop from the 57 per cent they got in the last agreement - which would still transfer more than $1 billion (Dh3.673bn) back to the owners in any new deal.

Hunter walked out of a bargaining meeting last week to dramatise his threat that the players will not consider a penny less, but the players' weakening position suggests it was mere grandstanding.

Most insiders, and likely even the players themselves, know the final deal will get made at 50-50 or not at all. Hunter's intransigence has led to speculation that he is taking a hard line to impress players and is more concerned about keeping his job with the union than getting the players back to work.

If the result is a bad deal - and whenever it is finalised, it is likely to favour the owners - at the very least it gives him an alibi.

There is a growing sense that the players would vote to take the deal at 50-50, since the only other option is to walk away, decertify the union, and take their fight to the courts. That would effectively wipe out the season, which has also led some players to question why the union did not exercise that option over the summer, when some leverage might have made a difference. Instead, it is the owners doing most of the squeezing.

Players will lose $350m because of the cancelled games this month, and the threat of sacrificing another round of games, likely to be followed by the owners putting an even worse deal on the table, should have the desired effect.

Stern holds most of the cards, and all he has to do is hold the owners together for a little longer. Buying that loyalty doesn't always come cheap, but as even Arison would likely concede, whenever the deal gets done, it rarely is a bad investment.

Published: November 6, 2011 04:00 AM


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