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NBA dispute gives perspective to English football

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Matt Slater | 19:37 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

Decent working conditions, sick pay, a minimum wage, paid leave: most of us are lucky enough to take these things for granted but we should remember these are benefits earned by our forebears.

They might be cornerstones of the modern employment contract but these concessions were not readily granted. We are standing on the shoulders of giant strikers.

So how will today's heroes of the labour movement be viewed by coming generations? For what will they be grateful?

Well, if they happen to play basketball it could be for the right to buy more beachfront property because the megastars of the National Basketball Association are in a militant mood.


LA Laker & union boss Derek Fisher sets out the players' position in their NBA labour dispute. PHOTO: Getty 

"Share half the sport's revenues with the bosses and agree to a limit on our earning power? Never. Down sweatbands, lads, we're all out."

The recent announcement that the first two weeks of the NBA season, due to start next month, have been cancelled, probably did not come as a shock to anybody who has been following this tale closely.

It is a dispute that has been a long time coming and its twists and turns this summer have been forensically analysed in the US.

But for the majority of sports fans outside America, news that people who earn an average annual wage of £3.26m are starting to sound like Arthur Scargill will come as a huge surprise.

In the interests of sanity I will gloss over the full details of the Great Basketball Strike of 2011 and simply direct the more inquisitive amongst you to the chapter-and-verse coverage stateside.

But there are a number of more salient points I should flag up.

The first is that this is not really a players' strike; it's an owners' strike. Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have not walked out of their places of work, they have been locked out.

This is because the most recent deal between the owners and players, a six-year agreement signed in 2005, expired at the end of June.

That deal covered everything from the NBA's salary cap arrangements, to the creation of a second-tier competition, to a ban on under-19s.

But most importantly it established a 57/43 revenue split in favour of the players.

So, last season, nearly £1.4bn of the league's total turnover of £2.4bn went into their bank accounts, which probably explains why NBA teams filled spots five through 11 in a 2010 pay survey of the world's richest sports leagues.

Among British teams, only Chelsea had a higher wage bill, although Manchester City are climbing that chart fast now.

But here is the second key point about the NBA dispute: the owners are willing to write off an entire season (refund tickets, reimburse sponsors, renegotiate TV contracts and so on) in order to achieve a more equitable distribution and wipe out the £1bn losses they claim the last deal brought them.

Compare that to the 68/32 revenue split Premier League bosses seem willing to put up with (it is a financial model-busting 88/12 in the Championship) and you will start to understand a fundamental difference between US and British professional sport.

In America, both sides are supposed to make money, not just the players.

That 22 of the NBA's 30 teams were in the red last season is unacceptable to your typical US sports entrepreneur.

They might run their sports like Soviet commissars (closed shops, central planning, the collective being stronger than the individual) but they are rampant capitalists underneath. Show me the money and all that.

The contrast with the British professional sports model - so let's face it, we are talking about football - could not be starker.

Here our owners behave like free-market zealots, railing against the very hint of regulation, and then wonder why they must make do with 1970s-style profits.

The NBA's battle lines look pretty entrenched at the moment and it is starting to look like this lockout could rival the six-month dispute of 1998.

But this is hardly new or unusual. The risk of strike action, from one side or the other, is an occupational hazard for the American sports fan.

The NFL season was almost delayed by a similar dispute, baseball's had more strikes than British Leyland and ice hockey lost an entire season in 2005.

So maybe their way isn't so great, after all.

And there is a potential upside for the British (American) sports fan to all this labour unrest: locked-out players need somewhere to play.

It has emerged this week that a dozen of the NBA's biggest stars are planning a two-week tour that will take in four continents and feature six games.

London, lucky old us, is set to get two.

So let's bring out the banners from the days gone by and enjoy some flying picket basketball action.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at


  • Comment number 1.

    This blog has been consistently stellar so far. Really appreciate the effort you put into it. Other blogs that work on the 'template' format can learn a lot from you.

    This lockout really is a mystery. The owners would have you believe that they would be losing money by playing a new season. If this is true, the players can't possibly have any leverage in this argument. Yet they continue to argue. However, if someone is lying, surely someone would have blinked first by now.

    This may be a bit of a long shot, but I wonder how much of this has to do with Yao Ming retiring. If there was one American sport that can fall back on international money, it's the NBA. But surely demand for the product will drop sharply with Yao retiring. You may question how much influence one player has on demand for the whole NBA product, yet Yao Ming was voted into the All-Star team last year despite being injured all season. Anyway, just a theory.

    Thanks again for the great blogs. Keep it up.

  • Comment number 2.

    I was talking about demand in China of course.

  • Comment number 3.

    after having lived in China I have to completely agree with you waldovski. The cultural and economic influence of Yao Ming is something not short of incredible, and time will tell as to how his retirement affects the game over there (by far and away the most popular sport in China).

    However, the Lakers especially have a huge following, and players like Kobe, LeBron and Melo are massive icons in the country. Yi Jianlian is a player the Chinese have been hyping up for a few years now, but without a strong Chinese name in the L we can only hope that demand continues in the country to keep the quality of the league going (as much as an influx of stars into Europe would open up the sport over here which would be great)

    going back to the original topic, this is a sad example of greedy sport stars and moneymen ruining a great sport for all concerned. lets hope the egos get out the way soon

  • Comment number 4.

    Sooner or later i fear the lockouts that have affected american sports in the last 20 years will be felt in the pl

    players are getting more obscene amounts of money, almost every club in the league is in debt so sooner or later a comprimise is going to have to be made to keep many clubs in existance, players in turn wont take pay cuts so then again in turn will refuse to play


  • Comment number 5.

    I for one would like to see the NBA stars over here.

    As for contagion to the PL Man City seem to have already lowered their threat to Senor Tevez. Shame his failure to play for the paying public should be punished and it should be a message to all the other primma donna's out there.

  • Comment number 6.

    Don't know anything about this dispute as I rarely watch American sports, just stumbled accross the blog whilst checking the football scores but think i'd have to agree with united_kaz on this, how much longer can most clubs run with huge unserviceable debts, it's only a matter of time before they want a bigger slice of the pie and who suffers in the end?.....

    You guessed it, us, the paying masses

  • Comment number 7.


    I don't think Yao will have much impact. This has been coming for some years.

    While the owners have IMO over sold their position the fact remains the players have no leverage and the only reason they don't accept that is that at current they have not lost any pay.

    Next month the pay starts going missing then the rank and file may not be so united. Its ok for Lebron to say lets stick this out and not go below 53% but those who earn far less and may be out of the league in a year or to, will they want to keep giving up money they will never see again.

    While I think the general opinion in the US media is with the players I'm firmly with the owners. A union should support their players but what they are asking is not realistic in the current financial climate.

    Who has a guaranteed contract? I don't, I could be made redundant tomorrow so why should my team the Orlando Magic pay $20 mil to an under performing player like Gilbert Arenas when it limits the ways they strengthen the team?

    They also say they don't support a hard salary cap. But they fail to see it is part of the problem. The continually quote why would a player turn down $18 mil because I'm only worth $12 mil. They wouldn't but when a team over the cap knows unless they pay over the odds to keep a player (you can go over the cap to resign your own player) they wouldn't be able to replace him what choice do they have?

    The players have lost because the no leverage and never did. They have failed to see this and the longer this goes on the more the owners are going to squeeze out of them.

  • Comment number 8.

    Could the players just walk away and start their own conference? Not as if it's not happened before! Though would make life interesting for the Olympics.

  • Comment number 9.

    A couple of points I would add, from the perspective of someone living across the pond and following this very closely. First, the owners haven't opened their books, so there is very little reason to believe their protests of poverty. When owners in North American sports have been forced to open their books, things are often quite different then they've been saying, Frank McCourt of the Los Angeles Dodgers in baseball being the most recent example. They've recently sold teams for over a lot of money, the most recent the sale of the Philadelphia 76ers for $290 million. Personally, I'm skeptical that anybody would spend that much money on a business that is in a league that claims they can't make money.
    The pay cut the players are offering is in the neighborhood of $200 million, which is about 8% of their salaries - the owners flat out rejected that offer. They're essentially trying to guarantee every team can make money without having revenue sharing, because the league on the whole is making money - it's not distributed at all evenly.

    As well, the owners make money from owning teams that aren't part of this discussion. First, what they're talking about is the BRI or Basketball Related Income, which isn't all the income - the owners get a fair chunk off the top. Second, there are ways that the team enhances other businesses they own that never make it on the NBA books. For a good article on this, written by Malcolm Gladwell, see this:

    Or this on why the owners want a hard cap (no, or few exceptions) on salaries:

    There will be no basketball until early February at the earliest, to be honest. We might lose the entire season. I tend to blame the owners more than the players. They claimed the current deal was to their advantage when they signed it 8 years ago, the league is as popular as it's been in decades, and the new TV deal is lucrative. They can't make money? They're doing some things fundamentally wrong, if true.

  • Comment number 10.

    Frankly I find the American adherance to a franchise system and salary caps baffling, it seems to fly in the face of the capitalist systemthat theoreticaly forms the basis for a free flowing capitalist economy.
    I lived in Canada for a few some years and played and and watched baseball,ice hockey and basketball, and the opnion there was against the caps and and huge wages, but was also against the the restrictions that that the clubs implented on players. Everyone wants to see the best players play against each other, but they're also absolutely adamant (Is that a tautology?) they don't want their team to have a bad season. SO the fans are mixed yes we want good players, but with the cap we can only afford 1 great. And the greats are praised and loathed at the same time , we can't do without him, but he's stopping us getting a decent defence.
    With no promotion/relegation alot of the team is tied to 1 guy for years and if he has a bad one the you you just blew 100 million.

  • Comment number 11.

    hopefully this will happen in football here as players greed, owners selfishness and inept regulation from the premier league, football league, uefa and our government are letting our game go the same way.
    for me the real issue is the same as the nba, the fans, they are forgotten in all this over there and over here.
    we as fans and customers are being taken for granted and ripped off.
    we have no rights or protection from the greed in our national sport.
    no wonder crowds are falling people have had enough of being conned and being priced out of watching their local league club.
    we have the greed of the premier giving pennies to the league clubs so keeping their closed shop.
    scrap relegation scenario is already here as half the prem will never go down.
    we need a max price for fans per division and to make clubs save 10% of their turnover for a rainy day and / or ground improvements and a wage bill of 50% maximum with relegation a certainty if you break these rules.
    owners should not be allowed to subsidise the playing side of the club.

  • Comment number 12.

    im for the players, of course they are getting paid crazy money but if the sport is bringing in that money then they should be reaping the benefits for playing and producing the talent and games that people are playing to see.

    how can anyone want to see a owner milk more money from a system, when they do very little towards the game in a viewers perspective. if they would open up their accounts i bet you would see that it is greed on their side as much as players.

    and as for the premier league, i have nothing against players making huge money as long as their is a demand for the sport but yes they clubs should be trying to love within their means as an ordinary man would be taking to court and possibly jail if they had their debt and didnt pay.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi all, thanks for the comments and apologies for my delay in getting back to them. My excuse is that London is still in the midst of a very unseasonal weather pattern and I'm about to move 200 miles I spent the entire weekend away from computers and work.

    Thanks for those links, Braktooth (9), very interesting.

    Looks like both sides are digging in. Could this be an opportunity for European pro basketball? Kobe in Bologna? LeBron on Merseyside?!?


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