Pacers and Opinion and NBA and Sports Business

BENNER: NBA players, owners show no regard for customers

October 15, 2011

So, here we go again. Billionaires versus millionaires, Round Two.

As predicted by many—though it didn’t require keen foresight—the NBA season will not begin as scheduled. Commissioner David Stern announced that at least the first two weeks and 100 games have been erased.

In some ways, that’s OK. The NBA season is too darn long, anyway.

In fact, I recall the 1998-1999 season, the last time there was an NBA lockout. The season was crammed into 50 games over three months and was hectic as hell.

Yet there was the sense that every game mattered, although my view might have been skewed by the fact that the Larry-Bird-coached, Reggie-Miller-led Indiana Pacers were then one of the league’s elite teams.

But back to the present.

The commissioner said there is a wide gulf separating owners and players on virtually all issues. Franchises, including the Pacers, are bleeding red ink. Owners are proposing a tourniquet. Players are responding with Band-aids.

It seems without question that, in the general scheme of things and even in the fantasyland that is professional sports, NBA players are overpaid.

Of course, the rub is that the players are overpaid because the NBA owners have overpaid them.

Lord, save them from themselves.

Long-term guaranteed contracts, numerous “exceptions” to a salary cap, the inability to retain star players, and ridiculous sums being paid to unproven and/or marginal talent are just a few of the substantive problems with the NBA.

The NBA says that at least two-thirds of its franchises lost money last season and that would include—near the top or the bottom of that list, depending on how you look at it—the Pacers, who reportedly came up $20 million short. The Pacers say, even as the overall value of the franchise has escalated, they’ve lost money virtually every year, including the seasons when they were making extended playoff runs.

That said, I am reluctant to beat up on Pacers owner Herb Simon, even though he’s one of the billionaires. Simon is trying to ensure the future of the franchise by making both the business and competitive models work for small markets.

If this lockout can’t achieve that, I truly fear for the long-term viability of the Pacers. And ours won’t be the only small-market franchise in jeopardy. “Contraction”—the elimination of teams—has been mentioned before. If the players, their agents and the players’ union were really serious about protecting job opportunities, that ought to get their attention.

But their goal is to make as much as they can as long as they can whether they’re truly “worth” it or not. As the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing once famously said when asked about the players’ exorbitant salaries, “Yeah, but we spend a lot of money, too.”

The NBA labor impasse, as the NFL’s before it, demonstrates just how completely out of touch major professional sports are with today’s realities, where the economy is reeling and one out of 10 Americans can’t find employment.

Yet, as I have pointed out in columns both recent and distant, in these discussions between the NBA owners and players, there will be absolutely no consideration given to substantially reducing costs for fans.

I will give the NFL credit. During its lockout, both owners and players at least expressed regret to the paying customers. If that has happened once during these NBA talks, I haven’t noticed.

When all is said and done and they‘re playing again—and that could be as early as January or as late as 2013, because the possibility of a two-year lockout has been raised—the players still will be (big) winners, the owners will maybe lose less (but still be billionaires), and the fans will pay more for, well, everything.

Understand, I hope both sides come to their senses and start playing next month. As with the NFL, I hurt for all the “little” people affected by the lockout. Estimates are that a full Pacers schedule drives $55 million in economic activity. Yes, some of that money will be spent elsewhere. But a lot of people who can’t afford to take a hit, whose livelihoods depend on the NBA, will get hammered in an already-weak economy.

One last sobering thought: The average NBA player’s salary is $4.79 million, or $92,000 per week!

Yeah, but they spend a lot of money, too.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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