- Associated Press - Friday, November 4, 2011

The NBA’s owners and players are preparing to climb into the ring once again in their ongoing labor fight, and the latest round is shaping up as the most divisive yet.

The players are fighting. The owners are fighting. And that’s just among themselves. Just wait until they return to the bargaining table on Saturday with threats of union decertification and eroding offers from the owners poisoning what already was a toxic atmosphere.

Only one thing appears certain _ the threat of losing the season has never been greater.

Two people with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Friday that the divide between the two sides could grow wider if serious progress isn’t made this weekend with federal mediator George Cohen, who’s rejoining the talks. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the negotiations.

“Both sides started out with everybody together. Everybody was together because both sides were asking for the world,” one person said. “Now we’re into real life, and neither side is going to get everything we want.”

At issue from the beginning has been the division of about $4 billion in basketball-related income, along with a system makeover that Commissioner David Stern insists must happen to fix what he considers a broken economic model.

Owners are determined to reshape the league by creating a system like the NFL or NHL, where spending is capped and small-market teams truly can compete with the big boys. But reforming the NHL’s financial structure wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. And the NFL is making money, not losing it.

The players have offered to reduce their share of revenue from 57 percent to 52.5 percent, a concession they feel is more than enough to cover their end of the league’s stated $300 million in annual losses. Owners have offered a 50-50 split, along with significant changes to the system that include a more punitive luxury tax on teams that exceed the salary cap, shorter contracts and a lower mid-level exception.

But that 50-50 split is unacceptable to the players, as well as some owners, who want the players’ share to be no higher than 47 percent.

“When people hear 50-50, they think, `Oh, it’s going to be a partnership. That’s half,’” Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade told the AP in a recent interview. “No. It’s not. That’s not how it works.”

And one person with knowledge of the discussions said there’s no guarantee a majority of owners would be “willing to do 50-50 for very much longer.”

That’s a big reason why decertification talk bubbled to the surface this week amid reports that union president Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter are not seeing eye to eye. The union spent most of Thursday trying to project a united front even as a group of about 50 players held two conference calls to build momentum to eliminate the union.

Although Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison was fined last week for hinting on Twitter that he was ready to get a deal done, about a dozen small-market owners are pushing for even more concessions. So the league has invited all the owners to New York for a meeting on Saturday to affirm their bargaining position. There are about 20 owners who have not actively participated in the talks who must be brought up to speed on the latest offers.

A group of about a dozen owners, led by Charlotte’s Michael Jordan, was upset that players were offered a 50-50 split and want the players’ share to be no higher than 47 percent, one person told the AP as first reported by The New York Times.

Among the system issues already agreed upon are a more punitive luxury tax for teams who spend over the salary cap, a reduction in the midlevel exception from about $6 million to $5 million annually and the shortening of contracts by one year.

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