It's November 1, and that means it would be time for basketball if it weren't still time for the NBA lockout. The league had a beautiful little match-up -- the NBA champ Dallas Mavericks hosting the powerful Chicago Bulls -- scheduled. It's gone down the tubes. TNT will offer something like Charmed instead. I might watch it, praying for Charles Barkley to pop up over Rose McGowan's shoulder.
If you believe Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, it was always going to come to this, the owners always intended to chop off the front end of the regular season to ensure that players missed a paycheck and felt real pain. The season itself was the owners' greatest bargaining tool. (You'll remember that the owners wouldn't meet with the players' union in July, met once in early August -- just preceding a federal lawsuit -- and didn't get started negotiating in earnest until September.)
The lockout battle has never been about fairness, something experienced labor issue reporters have consistently maintained. Who cares if it isn't fair that David Stern can wield a calendar like a club? Who cares that it isn't fair that the union has agreed to an 8 percent paycut, but the owners are pushing for more? Who cares that it isn't fair that cities who built arenas for these teams are left holding the bag as owners hold the league hostage for extra concessions?
None of it's fair, but neither is business. This is the game that these owners -- most of them, at least -- are good at. Do you think that Paul Allen doesn't know a thing or two about holding an ax over someone's neck? Of course he does. Do you think that Dan Gilbert earned his fortune by being fair in business deals? Of course he didn't. Big business, big finance -- these are brutal, dog-eat-dog industries where fairness and integrity is something like No. 99 on the list of institutional priorities. With the sort of assets that are typically at stake, there's no time for morality checks.
We think the NBA ought to be different, because we as fans drive the business. We literally pay to see Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. The fact that we show up in droves at arenas allows the players to make phenomenal salaries. The fact that we turn on the TV to the regional sports network or TNT or ESPN allows the NBA and its team to negotiate ever increasing contracts. We buy the jerseys. We buy the snapbacks. And our patronage is based completely on loyalty and speculative investment. We buy Kings' season tickets because we know they'll be hot once Tyreke Evans regains form and DeMarcus Cousins improves. We buy Russell Westbrook jerseys because we know we'll be wearing it for years. We put out a few hundred bucks for NBA League Pass at the start of the season because we know we can't last until the holiday sale.
But fairness to us, the customers, has no place in the discussion. Fairness would mean that instead of arguing over the luxury tax, owners and players would be working to boost revenue sources so loyal customers didn't have to bear a larger burden. (You can stop laughing now.) The Knicks had a winning season for the first time in a decade, and raised ticket prices 49 percent. Fairness has nothing to do with this.
In fact, in the grand scheme of modern business practices, the owners would not have been doing their job if they'd cut a deal before killing games. This isn't the NFL, where every single game mints money for everyone involved, including the owners. In the NBA, not all teams make money, even if the owners get their most recent proposal through. Too many NBA owners are over-leveraged, the arena situation remains a big issue in a number of markets and the disastrously small national TV contract that the league is working under -- it's like a rookie scale for sports leagues -- is a severe kink in the revenue firehose. (As we've noted many times this summer and fall: the NBA took in $900 million for its national TV package last year. The networks -- TNT, ESPN and ABC -- turned around and sold their NBA inventory for $1.2 billion. The NBA missed about $300 million last year under this contract. The NBA claims to have lost $300 million last year. Guh.)
Until losing an NBA game is as painful to NBA owners as losing an NFL game is to NFL owners, we'll see this brinkmanship, this stakes-raising bullying, this complete and utter dismissal of fairness. This is the default state of big business: sharks everywhere, all of the time. When sports leagues became massive businesses, this is what that entails. This is what we live with now. Whether in six years, or eight years, or 10 years, it will happen again. If you're disgusted enough to walk away now -- we won't blame you, who could? -- you might want to stay away. This sort of negotiating tactic is a feature for owners, not a bug.
So we're left here, watching the trebuchet load up another rock aimed at the month of December. I imagine that November will be a lot like October was: brief periods of hope squelched by swift, realist kicks to the head. I don't know if Billy Hunter is right, that the owners had pre-ordained a shortened season to get what they want. But it sure feels like he's right, and it feels like this won't be the last time we sit on the sidelines on opening day, our heads in our hands wondering when we'll get our game back.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.