Collective bargaining agreements are three words sports fans never want to hear. When these agreements expire and the door is opened for more negotiations during the offseason, the outcome never seems to turn out well. We generally see negotiations stall over a few key points, and the owners threaten a lockout of the players, and the players threaten to strike, and the outcome generally comes out in favor of the owners.
There are a few reasons for the owners’ advanced bargaining position over the players. One, when a lockout or strike occurs, the players are out their salary for that year. Although the owners don’t receive their revenue for the year, these people are mostly billionaires with other successful businesses, or have enough money that they wouldn’t notice. Seeing as the players pretty much only have about 5-10 years to make a lifetime worth of salary from the sport, they are very dependent on each year’s salary. Therefore, owners are much more comfortable sitting out a year than the players are, putting the players in a weakened bargaining position. Second, the players have such a diversity of interests and opinions, it is often difficult for them to remain unified on a topic. Players at different ends of the spectrum of salary and stardom have much different desires for what they want from the CBA. The owners on the other hand are essentially all in the business of making as much money as possible, and have a much easier time remaining united. They are able to disguise this desire through framing the issue as attempting to keep leagues competitive. This argument has led to the implementation of salary caps, and max player contracts, which have saved the owners untold amounts of money over the years.
This is the story that is forming in the upcoming NBA CBA in 2017. The salary cap is expanding and there are going to be heated debates about the revenue split between owners and players. There will also be a debate about medical testing of players, and whether it is ethical for teams to medically test their players to optimize their sleep, diet, and training. This variety of issues will create extreme difficulty for the players to come on a united front when bargaining with the owners and getting the short end of the stick once again in these deals.
Michele Roberts, the Director of the NBA Players Association, is determined to not let this happen to the players again. I recently heard a strategically placed story by the NBAPA that the players who are representing the players union, Chris Paul and LeBron James, are going to look into starting a new professional league that would take the players from the NBA and put them into a completely new situation. This would completely detach the current players from the NBA, and would sap the much of the value from every NBA franchise.
This is essentially a bargaining technique to show the owners that the players might have a way out if they feel they are not being treated fairly in the next CBA. But, in order for this threat to make an impact on bargaining, it needs to be credible. The reason this threat has some credibility to it is the fact that it could be argued that much of the NBA’s value could be attributed to the popularity of its players. The nature of the sport (only 10 players on the floor) leads players to be extremely visible to fans and creates a connection unlike any other major sport. For this new league to work, this would have to be true, and fans would have to follow the players rather than the league.
Starting this league obviously has many limitations, but I think that it has some credibility, and if the players invest enough into creating it, the owners might be seriously worried about it in the 2017 negotiations. Although I don’t think the negotiations will come to this, I think that if the players use this threat properly by showing they are serious about it, it could give them the leg up in the negotiations that they haven’t had in the past.