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NBA, NFL Labor Disputes May Leave Fans With Little to Cheer

July 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, happening at the same time, two big labor disputes in the world of professional sports, both football and basketball.

Last month’s NBA finals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat drew some of the best TV ratings in years. But the Mavericks’ celebration could be the last basketball fans see of their favorite pro players for quite some time.

Labor talks between players and owners broke down last week, and, effective 12:01 a.m. Friday, the owners issued a lockout.

NBA Commissioner David Stern:

DAVID STERN, NBA Commissioner: We had a great year in terms of the appreciation of our fans for our game. It just wasn’t a profitable one for the owners, and it wasn’t one that the — many of the smaller-market teams particularly enjoyed or felt included in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At issue, owners want to set a firm limit on player salaries, share a smaller portion of the league’s roughly $3.8 billion in annual revenue with the players, and implement shorter player contracts.

But with the October start of the 2011-’12 season now in jeopardy, player representative Derek Fisher said the goal is not to miss any games.

DEREK FISHER, National Basketball Players Association: Still just don’t like the prospect of a lockout. We don’t like it either. It’s something that our owners feel like is the best way, I guess, to maybe get what they want. We don’t agree. We’re still going to continue to negotiate even in the midst of this lockout.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, pro football remained caught up in its own standoff. Last week in Minneapolis, representatives of the National Football League, players and owners, continued negotiations in their four-month-old lockout.

MAN: Can you just kind of tell us how these several days have gone?

MAN: No, I can’t. Can’t really discuss it, man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The two main sticking points: money, how to split up the NFL’s annual revenue of roughly $9 billion; and the schedule. The league wants to add two more regular season games, for a total of 18. The players say that increases their risk of injury, and they deserve compensation.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith took time off to attend a rookie event in Florida last week.

ROGER GOODELL, National Football League: We’re taking a break because we felt it was important to be down here with the players. We have — both have great respect, obviously, for the players. And this is an important few days. And we’re going to get back to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Minneapolis on Friday, Smith said all sides had high hopes.

DEMAURICE SMITH, National Football League Players Association: We know it’s important. Our players want to play. Our fans want to see the game that they love.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talks are scheduled to resume tomorrow, putting the end of that labor dispute, already well past the 100-day mark, ever closer to the preseason, now scheduled just one month away.

For more now on both the NBA and NFL lockouts, we’re joined by Howard Beck, who covers professional basketball for The New York Times, and Kevin Blackistone, a professor of sports journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a regular commentator on ESPN.

Thank you both for being here.

Kevin Blackistone, to you first.

Let’s talk about the newest dispute of — the newer of the two, basketball. What’s at the heart of this disagreement?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland: Well, as always, it’s money. And the NBA is crying poverty.

They will tell you that 22 of their 30 teams didn’t make any money last year and don’t have much prospects for making any money in the near future if the continued financial plan that they’re working under isn’t broken up and something else is put in its place. And the players obviously don’t want to give anything back.

That’s the big difference between the NBA and the NFL. The NBA owners and management are actually asking concessions from their players.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Beck, what would you add to that? Help us understand the divide between the owners and the players on the — in basketball.

HOWARD BECK, The New York Times: Well, it basically breaks down along two lines for the NBA.

There’s the philosophical or the structural side of this, which is that they want to impose this hard salary cap, instead of the soft cap, which has all kinds of exceptions that allow teams to go past the cap limit on payrolls. And they want to go to a hard cap, which would be an all-time first for the NBA, something that players have been fighting against for decades really, ever since the soft cap system went into place.

So there’s the structural. The other side of it is just a straight financial division of the revenues, which are near $4 billion. Currently, the players make about 57 percent. The owners are saying they want to ratchet it down to more of a 50/50 split. But even within that, it’s a redefined revenue pool that they want to split 50/50.

And what the players are saying is, look, over the course of 10 years, which is the length of the agreement that the owners want, by the end of it, the players are saying they would actually be below 40 percent compared to where they are today. So, there’s really a huge divide on both of these issues right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Beck, I was reading that most of the — that the owners are saying most of teams right now are losing money. Can they prove that, and how big a factor is that?

HOWARD BECK: Yes, the NBA has been very open with its books. And this is one of the other differences between the two leagues. The NFL Players Association has been asking the NFL owners for some kind of transparency, which the NFL has largely resisted.

The NBA owners say, hey, look we have presented our audited financials for all 30 teams. The players have seen the same numbers that we have seen. And so then what it’s become is a debate over what is included. And, so, you know, the NBA says it’s been losing between $300 million and $400 million a year. And the players are saying, well, we can see that in the financials you have presented to us, but we don’t agree with everything that’s in there.

And the players also have a — kind of a principle at stake here, which is that they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to bail out the owners, especially those of small-market teams or badly run teams that maybe just aren’t making the best use of their resources or just making bad decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, you’re nodding your head.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Yes, it’s true.

So much of this is reflective of what’s going on in America. Right now, we’re having — you know, 2011 is a record year for corporate profits. Yet, corporate America points to the economy as being in bad shape. They point to unions and workers as people who need to pitch in and help them save themselves.

And you’re seeing the same thing going on in the sports world, particularly with the NFL model, which is bringing in $9 billion — $9 billion. And not only that, but they sent out an estimate that, over the next 10 years, they expect to double that.

And yet they’re in a fight with their players, the very people who they make their money off of, about how much of that revenue to share.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to get back to that in just a second, but before we leave basketball, Howard Beck, what are the prospects and what are the consequences if they don’t get it resolved? Obviously, this is new. This whole thing just got under way a few days ago.

HOWARD BECK: Yes, that’s the thing with these labor disputes in professional sports leagues, is that urgency is everything. And once they got to the lockout date, once the old CBA expired, we’re kind of in this limbo now, where neither side is going to feel much pain or much urgency until maybe around Labor Day, about a month before or a few weeks before NBA training camps are set to open.

So, we have been down this once before. The NBA lost games to a labor stoppage, to a lockout, once before in 1998. That dispute wasn’t settled until Jan. 6 of 1999, after they had gone on for 204 days. They ended up putting together a short, compact 50-game season. They certainly lost in terms of attendance and revenues and fan interest.

And it did take them a couple of years to kind of get going again and bring all that interest back. And so they’re coming off a fantastic season here. So there is clearly some risk to the NBA as a league and to the players, too, of course, to shut this thing down. But we’re still so far from missing games, that it may take a while before we see whether or not they’re going to get to that critical point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, let’s switch over to the NFL now.

You were talking about the money difference.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The money is at the core of it, but help us understand the difference between this dispute and the basketball dispute.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, I think the dispute is, one, no one is crying poverty within the NFL. They just flat can’t do that, because they are the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to sports leagues. They just rake in more money and more money and more money.

Number two, the transparency issue that Howard mentioned is a big deal. The NFL Players Association, union, has been pleading with the league to open up its books. The league has done everything it can to stay away from that.

Number three, the NFL Players Association has also decertified. And so they have gone into the courts as a result to try and help fight their battle. That hasn’t happened with the NBA. And I’m not so certain that it will. But one thing that has done for the Players Association in football, I think, is, it’s given them a lot of confidence, because all of the early court battles, they actually won.

And so I think now it’s the owners in the NFL who are backed into a corner and trying to figure out how to respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can this be resolved if the owners don’t open up their books?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: I think it can be resolved if they don’t open up their books.

Already, the players have backed off of their demand for about 53 percent of revenues down to about 48 percent, partly because they know that the expectations for revenues being earned over the next 10 years are just so gargantuan. So, I think it can be done and I think it will be done. I think in the NFL is a lot further along at getting this deal done and saving their season than the NBA is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, quickly, there are reports they are close. Is that your understanding, that this could get resolved soon?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: You know, Judy, I think they’re only close because everybody realizes it’s July now. This is when training camp starts. Next month is August. That’s when the preseason games begin.

So I think now people are really starting to focus on it and starting to think, hey, let’s get this deal done. And I think, because of that, I think that’s why we’re closer. That’s why the urgency is there now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you got our attention. You certainly — it certainly has the attention of all the fans.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, Howard Beck, we thank you both.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

HOWARD BECK: Thank you.