NBA lockout analysis: Blame the owners

NBA lockout means fewer games for fans. So who's the problem in this NBA lockout? Looking at you, owners.

By , McClatchy Newspapers Columnist

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    Miami Heat owner Micky Arison arrives for NBA lockout labor talks between the NBA and the players' association, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 in New York.
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Heat owner Micky Arison owns not one but two of America's 50 largest yachts, according to a rich-person magazine. He lives on one of them. This isn't excessive in the world he inhabits. Both yachts combined aren't as large as the one built by the Russian billionaire owner of the Chelsea soccer team. Roman Abramovich, who travels with a 40-strong security detail he calls "a private army," took more than a year to build his 560-foot Eclipse, which is almost-two-football-fields massive and can't even be docked in most marinas. It is equipped with not one but two helicopter pads and a submarine.

Point is, sports owners live in a different world than the rest of us, money and power and yachts another way to keep score, their teams-as-toys orbit so distorted it Eclipses practicality so completely that they don't even notice when they are building an ego too big to be docked.

Arison is more humble than most men of his wealth, but part of the reason he bought the Heat was because billionaire Wayne Huizenga was hogging our market's sports power. Huizenga, who already owned the Dolphins and Marlins, tried to get around the rule forbidding ownership of more than two pro sports teams in one town by trying to sneak his brother-in-law in to buy the Heat. So Arison, who became the president of Carnival Cruise Lines at 30 with the help of his father, bought the Heat as a bonding gift for his son Nick, who was recently named the Heat's CEO at 30. The Heat reported losses in the millions most years and barely broke even in the championship year of Shaquille O'Neal, but it didn't much matter because sports franchises almost always appreciate and Arison accrued wealth with his other toys (like the Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner at a cost of almost a billion dollars). The Heat is something Micky and Nick share the way a less affluent father and son might go to a game and share, you know, a hot dog.

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Everything changed last year, though. The Heat's value went up 17 percent, according to Forbes Magazine, because of LeBron James. In a recession, amid a system so broken that the sport is now locked out, no other team in the NBA had that kind of spike. And union chief Billy Hunter revealed the other day that Arison, for obvious reasons, is more eager than most owners to end the work stoppage. Arison has more to lose, and more to gain, than anyone in this rich man's game.

According to Newton's third law of motion, however, every action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction. And, in the case of the NBA lockout, the equal and opposite reaction is named Dan Gilbert. Gilbert bought the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005 for $375 million. According to Forbes, the small-market Cavaliers became the fifth most valuable franchise in the league with James, worth nearly $500 million. And now you know why Gilbert wrote that hateful, angry letter about James in crazy computerized crayon. The Cavs dropped in value more than any franchise in the league last year, 26 percent, losing as much as $250 million in value, according to some experts. They are now said to be worth less than what Gilbert paid for them. Gilbert, for obvious reasons, is less eager than most to end the lockout, and he appears to be beating Arison and James in this game around the games.

You see what is happening here, right?

No matter how bully NBA commissioner David Stern tries to manipulate the media spin, no matter how eager fans are to make sports one of the few American workplaces where the customers are pro-management instead of pro-employee, no matter how terrible a martyr a $100 million basketball player makes, this lockout is not a fight between greedy owners and greedy players. It is a fight between selfish owners and selfish owners. The players, all of them, want to play. The owners? Not so much. The players were fine with the way the system was but have already given back hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions b" something baseball's union would never, ever do b" for the overall health of the league, negotiating in good faith. But there are a few owners who would lose more money by opening their arena doors than by not, and those owners literally can afford to wait until players start getting restless and customers get furious.

If you think the hawkish Gilbert wouldn't try to throw away an entire season out of pure spite for James, you didn't read his crazy-crayon letter in a rare moment of raw, rabid public honesty from an owner b" a temper tantrum unlike any in the history of an American sports ownership that includes George Steinbrenner. And you didn't notice how small he could behave by having his Fathead company price the James poster at $17.41 b" the year of Benedict Arnold's birth. And you don't know how petty rich people can be when playing this kind of negotiating game of ego and power, emotion trampling logic just like when a divorcing wealthy couple spends $100,000 in attorney fees arguing over a thousand dollars in china.

Think about all the ego and money in the room when those owners meet. Think about how accustomed these men with yachts are to getting their way in every walk of life. That kind of wealth isn't usually accrued by sharing and compromise; these men tend to be rich because cutthroat is what wins in business. Given that there are so many different interests in that room, and given that these owners aren't really in it for the money, why would Gilbert want to help Arison with urgency, exactly? Even if he is not motivated by spite, what exactly is Gilbert's impetus to settle quickly? You think he's in a big hurry to go 19-63 again? Better for him to lose the season, break the union, fix the system and win that way than to fight the Timberwolves for worst record again. Trying to beat the players in a negotiation is more fun than that . Letting Dwyane Wade age another year next to James without playing would be a happy bonus for Gilbert, even if it isn't his outright goal.

Yes, Arison and Gilbert are the extremes. But here's the scary part for Heat fans: More owners are closer to Gilbert's camp than Arison's. There are only five or six legitimate contenders in the lopsided NBA every year, if that. Might as well make money and rig the system in our favor for the next decade, the rest of the owners are saying, if we don't have a real chance to win. It isn't a coincidence that Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Arison are the most eager to get a deal done. But they are the minority when Yahoo! is reporting that even Paul Allen, one of the world's richest men, has grown bored and disinterested with how far behind his Blazers are and is now a lot closer to Gilbert in philosophy than Arison. The Heat changed the paradigm in a way that gives too many owners who are behind incentive to fix the system instead of trying to win within it. If everyone had a real chance, no owner would want a lockout, scoreboard losses hurting these wealthy men more than financial ones. That's why Stern, who works for the owners, has been so loud and threatening as their mouthpiece.

"The NBA has done an awesome job of spinning this in their favor as far as the media goes," Utah's Raja Bell said. "Commissioner Stern, in my opinion, is a bit in the way of us making progress. He has been one of the biggest problems in this whole lockout. It is unfortunate we haven't be able to get past that. He rules the NBA with an iron fist, his way or the highway. There's a deal to be made. We've made concessions. We've tried to get close to a position where the owners would meet us. It seems like every inch we give up, they ask for another one. That's the most exasperating part. I feel like that's their target — shoot below the bar, so it looks like they are negotiating when, in fact, there is no intent to negotiate."

Fans just want to cheer. They don't care enough about the details, the numbers, the facts, to see how little the owners have actually given here and how dishonest they have been about trying. James Jones, a player rep more informed than most, was asked if he thought Stern was lying.

"Most definitely," he said. "That's the unfortunate part about it. None of that helps. The answer isn't spin, isn't being antagonistic, isn't pointing fingers. It is coming back to the table and really working to get a deal done. A lot of the things he is doing are not helpful to the process."

We, as fans, just want our games, our escape. Nobody goes to the amusement park to read contract language. So we feel like parents at a playground right now, surrounded by spoiled children. Come on now, kids. This is supposed to all be fun. Can't we just play instead of fight? Emotion clouds. Greed infuriates. The coverage is droning and boring, unless Wade is yelling at Stern, and the truth is obscured because the commissioner is good at public relations. But the fan who can't afford to take his son to an NBA game in a recession, already angry at the greedy millionaire who won't just shut up and play, doesn't understand why a man who gets to play a game for a living won't just accept whatever the owners are offering.

The players are an easy target but not an accurate one. They already have agreed, in essence, to a league-wide pay cut that gives back hundreds of millions of dollars — and they have done it because the owners have run their business improperly, basically giving back hundreds of millions in concessions to help the owners police themselves. And it hasn't been enough. It really is breathtaking in its stupidity and makes you wonder how these people got rich in the first place doing business this way. We build these wealthy men arenas. We invest in their product in more ways than one. And what do we get in return now? These successful businessmen have somehow figured out a way to take the paying customer's sport and team and fun — but not the paying customer's money.

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