The NFL Draft in April had a strange vibe to it, like it was existing in some parallel universe in which everything was fine, that the season was on track, that all these players would pick up the playbooks and go to mini-camp, and the schedule as we have always known it would remain in place. We tried to squint and pretend all was normal, but it wasn’t, punctuated by the odd “lockout’s off! no it’s on again!” back-and-forth that went on all weekend. The NFL is slowly, delicately coming closer to a deal, but the months since the Draft have been spent in a fog, confused, football is happening, probably, but not really. None of it seems real, and the first time that was palpable was at the Draft. Tomorrow is the NBA Draft in Newark, and you can count on the same feeling.
Yes, we get Phantom Draft Part Two, with the NBA unveiling its newest best and brightest while labor strife eats away at the league’s core. On June 30, the NBA will institute a lockout, the fourth work stoppage in the league’s history. That was essentially assured yesterday, with a grave-faced David Stern saying, “the cupboard is almost bare.” There was hope that yesterday’s marathon — and we mean marathon; let us know how you feel after your next three-and-a-half-hour meeting — negotiation session could bring the sides closer. It didn’t.
The issues are complicated, like they always are, but like the NFL’s labor issue, this is largely about the owners wanting a higher percentage of basketball-related revenue. Right now the players receive 57 percent; the owners said yesterday they’d like a 50-50 split. (Though a “hard-cap” could ultimately make that number closer to 60-40 owners.) But it’s not just that. As ESPN’s Chris Sheridan wrote earlier this week, the owners would like to decrease player salaries by $750 million over the next four years, or about $25 million a team. As Sheridan put it, the owners want guaranteed profitability, which is not something sports teams have had guaranteed, ever.
“The owners are asking for a give that puts them in a place where they’ve never been, which is guaranteed profitability,” said a source familiar with the dynamics of this particular negotiation and past labor talks. “The biggest problem is that it is unreasonable for owners to even ask for $400 million when they say they are losing $300 million, and thus far they are nowhere near lowering their demands down to the $400 million range. So it’s a question of when will they get to a number that is reasonable?
“If the owners were asking for $400 million and the union was offering $100 million, then there would be a deal to be done,” the source said. “But that is not even close to being the case at the present time.”
It’s going to be exciting to see who the Knicks draft tomorrow, and to see Donnie Walsh’s last move as Knicks president, and to see what everybody’s wearing. But don’t have the illusion that tomorrow’s draft is going to bring us any closer to actual basketball games. It isn’t.