- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2011

The NBA lockout is now into its fourth month, with Day 102 looming Monday as commissioner David Stern’s momentous day to cancel the first two weeks of the season if no deal has been reached.

Top negotiators for the NBA and the players union scheduled talks for Sunday night, their first since bargaining broke down Tuesday. Still, there is little optimism the entire 82-game regular season will be salvaged.

Mr. Stern has given no further timelines for canceling additional regular-season games, nor a drop-dead date at which point the entire season would be lost. But he did speculate that if the All-Star Game is canceled, a decision he would make by mid-December, it’s a good indication the season will be lost. The All-Star Game is scheduled for Feb. 26 in Orlando.

The lockout comes at a time when the NBA has finally regained the popularity of the 1980s and 90s dominated by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and a prolonged work stoppage will put fans good will and patience to the ultimate test.

“I think both sides are ruining the image of the league,” said Ken Harris, of Bowie, a longtime NBA fan. “They just had a great season, exciting playoffs, and now they are tainting the product and turning off the fan base.

“I wonder if they’re taking into consideration the amount of damage that’s being done to the brand of the NBA. Even after they finally settle this lockout, they’re making it hard for people to want to come back and watch.”

Although many issues remain unresolved, the central issue is the split of basketball-related income (BRI), which was at 57 percent for the players last season and likely will never be that high again.

After the talks broke down last week, Mr. Stern said the owners were willing to discuss a 50-50 split of BRI, but it would come after the owners took $350 million off the top for additional operating costs, including arena maintenance, and plans for NBA China, making the actual split 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of the owners.

When the players rejected the offer, both sides walked away.

Billy Hunter, executive director of the players union, then reached out to the league Friday to resume talks, but was told owners would only meet if the players would agree to the 50-50 split. League sources have said the owners might be willing to offer the 50-50 split without the up-front money, but Mr. Hunter says the players still will not go below 53, or possibly 52 percent, of BRI.

Two to three percentage points may not sound like an insurmountable gap, but one percentage point translates to between $40 million and $42 million, and the players think they’ve given back enough already.

“The reality is that we believe that we’re the most significant and important asset to this particular business,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher, president of the players union, said last week.

“With the level of revenue that will continue to be generated as this business grows, that there’s just a fair place that the compensation should start for this particular group.”

According to figures released by the NBA, the league generated $4 billion in revenue last season, and ratings were up for all three of the NBA’s national television partners. TNT’s ratings had a 42-percent uptick, ABC’s jumped 38 percent and ESPN’s increased 28 percent. Arena capacity was at 90.3 percent, and merchandise sales were up by slightly more than 20 percent.

Sports fans in Washington have it better than many, with the NFL’s Redskins off to a 3-1 start and the NHL’s Capitals a perennial playoff contender. Local business owners agree that the Capitals, along with a busy event schedule at the Verizon Center, will make the loss of revenue without Wizards games challenging but not devastating if a significant portion of the season is lost.

But that’s not the case in cities such as Orlando, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Portland, where the NBA is the only major professional league in town. A shortened or lost season means more than a loss of fan interest — no NBA games can equal lost jobs, lost revenue for local businesses, and anger toward players whose likability can make or break a league that has long marketed individual stars over teams.

But Wizards guard Maurice Evans, vice president of the players union, thinks the players have a legitimate fight and should hold firm, regardless of public perception.

“I don’t think this is a matter of trying to win the support of the public, because we’re not fighting for the support of the people,” Evans said shortly after the lockout began. “We’re trying to fight for what’s right for everyone, what’s right for the game, for all the people who have come before us.”

Evans has said all along that a deal would not get done before November, and possibly not until January.

Among his Wizards teammates, the attitudes range from noncommittal to almost disengaged about the progress of the negotiations.

Andray Blatche, a self-described optimist, just returned to Washington from his home in Florida. The center said he thinks a deal will get done and that the NBA season will begin soon.

“I’m trying to get some of my teammates together to work out while we wait for the lockout to end,” Blatche said.

Rookie Chris Singleton, a cautious optimist, is attending classes at Florida State while he waits for his NBA career to begin.

“All we can do as rookies is get ready for the season and hope this thing gets solved,” Singleton said. “We’re all just waiting for the phone to ring.”

Trevor Booker is playing in Israel, and the forward has a an opt-out clause to return to the NBA if and when the lockout ends.

“I just hope that both sides come to an agreement soon,” Booker said. “If not, they’ve told us to be prepared for a while, and I’m prepared.”

Point guard John Wall has let his game do the talking this offseason. He has spent nearly every weekend in a different city, tearing up the summer-league circuit in what amounted to a traveling all-star show. Wall played in the South Florida All-Star Classic on Saturday for a team led by Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade.

Other Wizards players, including Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Jordan Crawford, have spent most of the offseason in California, working out and waiting.

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