NBA Lockout Allows Owners To Cheat Fans, Embrace Greed

The NBA lockout will reach a head on Tuesday, all because the league's owners can't get enough money and refuse to prioritize anything over the quest for wealth.

After two long years of posturing, two months of inactivity and a few weeks of fruitless talks, the NBA lockout threatens its doomsday scenario. The league and players' union will meet Tuesday in New York City with the basketball season at stake. Commissioner David Stern won't give a deadline by which a deal must be done to prevent the cancellation of regular season games, but it's coming. Without major progress Tuesday, Wednesday and maybe Thursday and Friday, the league's schedule will be affected. 

That means that paychecks would be affected -- not just those for the locked-out players, but those for arena workers, owners themselves and all of the small businesses that have popped up around the league. When you have a $4 billion company, your tentacles tend to reach far and deep. The NBA as a business has dug into our economy and our community economies; to pull the league out of the system cold turkey will send some shocks through the markets.

That's why, if Stern's gang refuses to relent on its incredible demands, these communities that have made the NBA what it is deserve answers from their team's owners. Fans have financed the arenas that the NBA's teams play in, paid ever-increasing ticket prices and supported their local team through thick and thin. They deserve answers.


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The people of Oklahoma City have spent more than $100 million to build the Chesapeake Energy Arena and a practice facility for the Thunder. They deserve to know why Clay Bennett is holding out for more money from Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The people of San Antonio have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to build and renovate the AT&T Center, and have turned out in droves to celebrate the Spurs' success. They deserve to know why an ownership committee headed up by Spurs owner Peter Holt has made so little progress in negotiations that a shortened season seems inevitable.

In the NBA, fans aren't just customers. We are investors. We bankroll the whole operation. Of the $2 billion spent on building and renovating NBA arenas since 2000, $1.75 billion of it has been public money. Without a public willing to play Stern's extortionist games -- ask Seattle what happens if you refuse to build a gym on the league's terms -- the NBA would be hosting its biggest games in rinky-dink arenas, or worse, on college campuses. Instead, the public plays along and bites on the threats, Stern's NBA rakes in $4 billion a year and owners have the luxury of demanding a bigger slice.

We deserve answers. When Robert Sarver sits across from a collection of players and says that he hasn't gotten the return he wanted on the Suns, and that's why he and his buddies are demanding massive concessions before he'll sign their paychecks, the fans left in the cold deserve answers. Those fans built U.S. Airways Center in the '90s and paid for its renovation just before Sarver took over. They ought to hear directly from Sarver's mouth why they are being deprived the product their investment in the arena guaranteed. Season ticket holders deserve the opportunity to ask Sarver why bringing the mid-level exception home to his wife in a designer handbag is more important than providing the product they have already paid for.

Sarver bought the Suns for a then-record $400 million in 2004. The market was about to peak, and Sarver -- a banker -- was rolling in dough. When the housing market and economy crashed, Sarver's investment didn't look so great. He bought high, and would be forced to pay for his mistake. 

Except that he's refusing to pay for his mistake. He didn't pay for the mistakes his bank, Western Alliance, made: he took $140 million in taxpayer bailout funds in 2008. Now, a year after signing Hakim Warrick, Channing Frye and Josh Childress to a combined $15 million a year, a year after trading for Hedo Turkoglu's awful contract and months after being forced to flip that for more bad contracts, Sarver is refusing to pay for his mistakes. He wants the players to bear the burden. Sarver will certainly take the fans' money, just as his bank took its customers' money. But he's sure as Hades not going to take responsibility for what happened to it.

Sarver is dead weight. As Adrian Wojnarowski wrote on Tuesday, he brings no value to the NBA. None. People bitch about Eddy Curry, but Eddy Curry isn't holding the league hostage. You want to blame Eddy Curry for the lockout? Robert Sarver is Eddy Curry, a man who spoiled the trust of those who paid him and does absolutely nothing to improve the game. People joke about NBA players who buy Maybachs they don't need, jewelry instead of bonds. Let me tell you this: no player in NBA history has squandered as much money as Robert Sarver has just on the Suns since he bought in. You wonder how a player like Antoine Walker can go broke after making $108 million in the NBA? Ask how Sarver can do the same thing on a much grander (if less stylish) scale. Ask how the mighty Maloof brothers can crush their family's empire and take a whole city's sports identity down with it. Ask how Bruce Ratner can burn through stacks of money like firewood without even one eye on the product on the court. But the biggest difference is that when Antoine Walker burns his loot, the guy has to shimmy down to Puerto Rico and to the D-League to making a living. He has get back on his feet on hustle. Sarver? He gets a bailout. The Maloofs? They pawn off one of their dad's businesses. Ratner? He remembers that the Nets he lost so much money on were simply Vaseline for a real estate project in Brooklyn that will make his company billions more than an NBA team could ever be worth.

This is what bothers so many about what the NBA is doing: there is no ownership of the problem from ownership. Watch the language that the league will use. David Stern will be "forced" to cancel games -- nuh uh, no one is forcing the boss to call the shots. Without a deal, the NBA will make a conscious decision to cancel games. The owners will decide that extracting more money from players takes precedence over serving the communities that have put them in fancy suits, meeting in fancy hotels over fancy lunches. Robert Sarver will decide that the bailout the players' union has offered him -- $200 million in future salary rollbacks and a sure concession of escrow funds, which amount to 8 percent of payroll  -- isn't enough, that he needs to twist the screws and get more, more, more.

Notice that the NBA is looking to make up all of its losses and gain leaguewide profits on the backs of the players. Sure, Stern has cut league expenses. But he's not asking teams losing money to cut their expenses. The biggest crock of s--t about the whole lockout is that rising player salaries are to blame for the league's red balance sheet. It's logically impossible for that to be the case: leaguewide salaries are capped at a percentage of leaguewide revenue. If revenue grows 4 percent, payroll grows 4 percent. If revenue stays stagnant, payroll stays stagnant. 

No, if the NBA is truly losing money, it's because other expenses are growing faster than revenue. The league refuses to discuss those other expenses, of course. Interest payments on team purchases -- you know, the interest Robert Sarver is paying to finance his record-breaking purchase of the Suns -- is a big chunk. That whole racket has become a self-perpetuating scandal that ensures that non-payroll expenses increase for eternity. The values of NBA teams as properties will continue to rise, and the players (through lockout-forced rollbacks) and fans (through higher prices and worse service) will be forced to help finance those deals. But when Sarver sells the Suns, when Chris Cohan sells the Warriors, do those players and fans get cut in? Nope. They're left helping the next guy finance the takeover. 

If owners like Sarver don't wake up, realize how ridiculous they have been and find a way to open up our gyms on November 1, we're all going to be left holding the bag: the players, the fans, the arena workers, the city and county governments. Entitlement is a dirty word in American business, but we're applying it to the wrong people. Enough of the bulls--t. Take your insatiable greed back home to the wife in a designer handbag, and end this lockout.

Star-divide

The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.

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