The NBA's new TV deal is projected to be around $75 billion over 9 years, three times more than the current deal. That's a good problem to have, but as always, it's not going to be simple. The combination of player empowerment escalating with James Harden going to strip clubs last season, Ben Simmons not showing up this season, and hundreds of millions on the line is creating an explosive mix.
The 1999 lockout
The key to understanding NBA lockouts is realizing that it is a battle of public opinion. The side that wins the support of the fans will have more leverage to endure in their demands. Back in 1998, the NBA was seemingly in a great place. The Bulls had just finished their second three-peat, and ratings were never better. 35.89 million viewers watched MJ drain his last shot as a Bull - to this day, the most-watched game in NBA history. But the owners didn't see it that way.
Kevin Garnett signed a 6 years/$126 million extension as a second-year player in 1998, and it was a bridge too far for the owners. They activated a clause to reopen negotiations on the CBA, with a single goal - limit spending on player wages. Everything from guaranteed contracts to a hard salary cap was on the table. The end result was around $500 million lost in player wages and an overall loss of over a billion dollars. It was a disaster.
At the time, the owners managed to push through the narrative of players being overpaid. The PR battle was on - whoever seemed greedier was going to lose. It's fascinating how billionaires who mostly inherited their wealth managed to paint young men, overwhelmingly minorities, as the greedy ones. But it happened.
Unfortunately, the players didn't help themselves. We all remember Latrell Sprewell passing up a 3 year/$21 million contract and explaining it with "I got a family to feed," or Gary Payton saying he's not sure whether he has "four of five of them" - them being Bentleys. But back in 1998, then president of the NBPA (Players Union), Patrick Ewing said what is probably the worst statements in terms of helping the owners paint the players as greedy and undeserving of a raise.
"People complain that pro athletes make a lot of money; but what they don’t understand is that we need a lot of money because we spend a lot of money."
Ouch. If any NBA star said something like this, it would harm the players' position. But when the President of the Players Union says it during a lockout that happened because of a money dispute, it's a whole different level of tone-deaf. Will Perdue, San Antonio's center involved in the lockout at the time, didn't hide his feelings about the quote, explaining that “Patrick Ewing also made a stupid statement. You know what? You guys aren’t helping the cause. Just don’t say anything.”
Will history repeat itself
Players today are a lot savvier with framing their message, and there's a lot more awareness we really shouldn't pity billionaire owners when they have to share the pie with the players. If the league as a whole is going to make three times more from TV rights in the next deal, it's mostly because we love watching Steph and KD play. They should enjoy the benefits of that.
But all the player empowerment stuff has gone too far. Signing supermax contracts and then asking out with four years left on the deal won't fly, not even for young socialites who would like to go to three California teams to suit his lifestyle. That's why Charles Barkleypredicted a lockout during the next CBA negotiations.
“The owners are not going to take this s**t lying down. I think the next collective bargaining agreement is going to be very contentious. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to have a strike or a lockout.”
Charles Barkley, Compare.bet
I hope Charles is wrong. Adam Silver is no David Stern, and the ownership structure has changed. There are a lot more self-made billionaires, and fewer owners born with a silver spoon in today's NBA. They get the power dynamics are different and seem to be a lot more cooperative with the players than those in the 1990s.
But, players will have to concede that honoring a signed contract is a basic premise of doing business. If we do have a lockout, it won't be about money - it will be about control.