- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

NBA commissioner David Stern once again is pounding the labor drum, declaring an impasse in talks with the players union over a new collective bargaining agreement and painting a morose picture of the future.

“I have downgraded from optimistic to hopeful and now frankly to perplexed and ultimately despairing because I don’t know if we can make a deal,” Stern said last week.

Stern’s troubled tone, as well as the lack of any scheduled negotiating sessions, quickly recall 1998-99, when Stern and the NBA team owners locked out the players for 191 days and created the longest and deepest labor dispute in basketball history.

But a closer look at the current talks and issues in play reveal a situation much less likely to create another work stoppage. Here are five reasons why the chances for another NBA lockout this year remain remote:

• Lack of threshold issues. The 1998-99 talks were dominated by fundamental disputes on core issues, including maximum salaries and an extended rookie wage scale. After the bitter lockout, which wiped out nearly half of that season, owners scored a historic win on the compensation issues, at last gaining some meaningful controls on salaries that, on average, had more than tripled in the preceding decade.

Conversely, this round of talks, though intense, is mostly a question of how best to modify the current system. Owners want to reduce the length of guaranteed contracts from seven years to five, representing a clear effort to end high-dollar payoffs to veteran players with fast-declining skills. Players are willing to go down to six years.

Also under debate are the percentage of basketball-related revenues going to players, escrow tax thresholds, and the amount of allowed exceptions under the salary cap. But again, discussions on these points remain confined to the core of the existing framework and have not grown into a broad philosophical divide.

Stern’s desire to increase the NBA’s minimum age from 18 to 20 has generated significant attention and raised a host of broader right-to-work issues. Players have resisted the potential move, but Billy Hunter, union executive director, said last week the minimum age question does not stand above any other issue on the bargaining table. Linked in with the minimum age talks is the likely creation of a fully fledged minor league for the NBA, something both sides favor.

• Real talks have yet to begin. Both sides have been hard at work since February on the labor deal, with league officials last week calling the sessions “arduous.” But more than a month remains before the June30 expiration of the current deal, and even after that date, another three months are available before training camps begin and team operations are drastically disrupted.

In other words, the final chapters on these negotiations are nowhere close to being written yet.

• The NHL. Officials for both the NBA and the players have been quick to distance themselves from hockey’s lockout, which wiped out the entire 2004-05 season and now threatens to do the same to the upcoming campaign. But there is no doubt the entire basketball community fears the situation hockey now finds itself in: widespread fan malaise and most people either not knowing or not caring about the lack of NHL games.

• New owners. Since that 1998-99 lockout, 10 teams have changed ownership and the expansion Charlotte Bobcats have joined the NBA. Most of the new owners arrived with sizable sums of debt used to finance their purchases, and without revenues coming in to service that debt, an extended work stoppage will have damaging fiscal impact.

• Building debt. More than half of the NBA teams hold ownership or management interests in the arenas in which they play. Already facing sharp revenue losses from the lack of NHL games in some of the same buildings, the further loss of income presents a potentially brutal one-two punch.

The group of NBA owners is still quite a wealthy bunch, with Portland’s Paul Allen leading the way with an estimated net worth of $20billion. And there’s little doubt owners have prepared themselves for a potential work stoppage, similar to the labor war chest created by NHL owners. But in a fight over largely incremental changes to the system, a serious question remains of whether it’s worth it financially for the NBA to risk toppling the entire sport.

In the meantime, Stern’s recent comments suggest more of an attempt to take control of the negotiating calendar than imminent disaster.

“This is just a bump in the road,” Hunter said last week. “We’re going to get a deal. Sooner or later they’ll come back to the table.”

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