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Why David Stern Wants Us To Panic Over NBA Lockout's Deafening Silence

All is quiet around the NBA lockout. That's because David Stern and the union want us to scream for mercy. Also in The Hook: bad owners leave revenue on the table and it is possible to feel empathy for screwed arena workers.

When you think about it, the NBA lockout game has always been a cynical marathon toward the brink, a staredown made up of dozens of smaller staredowns. We all know that the NBA and players' union will at least talk again by David Stern's Monday deadline for a deal, whether or not either side actually moves. We know what happens next: either a compromise is hammered out on Monday and we have basketball in three or four weeks, or Stern still in front of a microphone Monday evening and announces that the first two weeks of the regular season are gone. It's all binary at this point: deal or no deal.

All along the way, the NBA and players' union have used the media like pawns, just as all newsworthy entities do in times of crisis. It's more subtle than, say, presidential politics. But the delay on the deal itself is in effect to call to media to say ... something. The radio silence coming out of the league and union right now is a call to action for a media corps destined to feel negatively about the situation. Those negative thoughts turn into their own calls of action, whether it be to the players to cave, the owners to buck up or something as nuanced as the union holding a vote.

The clock wasn't always on David Stern's side just because of the specter of missed paychecks for players. It's also one hell of a public relations sword to wield. He sets the deadlines. He controls the clock. He decides when the crescendo hits and the bottom falls out of the lockout song. He can twist the players' stomachs into knots heading into Sunday if there are talks underway -- which there won't be, because Yom Kippur is celebrated on Saturday. 

To be sure, the union has repeatedly try to wrestle control of the crisis away from Stern. Walking out on Tuesday -- after the league had made legit concessions on its position -- was the latest example. When the owners dropped from demanding that the players take just 46 percent of revenue to 50 percent in an informal proposal, there was no reason for Billy Hunter and company to depart. They actually had them moving! But 50 percent wasn't too far from the union's own 53 percent offer, so leverage for that last bit difference needed to be created, and Hunter wasn't going to find it Tuesday, not when the owners had moved so much. So: boom. Talks cancelled.

We have just a few days left of this nonsense ... we think. Get it out of your system, David and Billy. Shake it all out.



An interesting undercurrent that doesn't get nearly enough attention is how bad some of these teams are at capturing potential revenue. The New Orleans Hornets have had Chris Paul since 2005. Why did it take league takeover to get the Hornets' season ticket levels so high? New Orleans has had talented folks on the sales side, but needed a jolt from the NBA's SWAT team and buy-in from local governments (including the state of Louisiana) to make a big dent. It worked! How much revenue did the Hornets leave on the table when George Shinn was in charge?

The same applies in Sacramento, where the NBA's brilliant business squad turned things around before the lockout. Smart people have been in place for years, but it took the NBA talent infusion to really crank up ticket sales. Meanwhile, only when the Kings tried to move to Anaheim did something think to renegotiate the team's local TV deal with Comcast SportsNet. (It's expected a new deal will significantly increase the team's TV take.) I don't know how the Golden State Warriors are doing -- they've always sold a lot of tickets, even in the bad times -- but I imagine that the infusion of smart, young Joe Lacob has opened up some revenue streams that Chris Cohan has never heard of.

One of the lessons of the lockout is that there is real value in the organizational and structural components that the league and its teams bring to the table. Building a league like this takes time, energy, opportunity and luck, and the idea that star players and their agents can replicate it in short order is silly. But the other side of that coin is that the NBA, by virtue of its size and longevity, is a bit unwieldy in terms of efficiency and innovation. There's a reason Steve Jobs is so celebrated: he took a big, old (in Silicon Valley terms) company and kept it the most innovative in the world. In the NBA, there are revenue streams being left on the table. That reality will be exacerbated by less sophisticated owners in some markets. Cohan controlled basketball in the Bay Area for 16 years. That's not a good thing. Donald Sterling has no doubt wasted a good portion of Los Angeles' basketball potential. Bad. Shinn and the Maloofs have quite nearly ruined NBA markets. Bad. It's something to consider when we talk about the impact of bad owners and the league's willingness -- or lack thereof -- to replace them. It affects everyone in the NBA by virtue of leaving growth on the table.



Ethan Sherwood Strauss of HoopSpeak wrote a post earlier this week alleging insincerity in most calls for the league and union to consider the plight of arena workers affected by the lockout. Understandably, this pissed off a number of people -- myself included. Strauss suggested empathy was a pose manufactured to cover for the selfish, less noble aching we fans and writers have for basketball itself. In other words, we really just want to watch the Wolves and Heat and Knicks, but we're willing to use the actual plight of actual suffering arena workers to make us look more altruistic.

Strauss didn't actually call out any specific instances of feigned empathy, but stuck to his guns. After an avalanche of criticism, he doubled down with a second post, which includes this passage:

When you rip squabbling players/owners for slightly lessening SMG [an arena management company] profits, you hurtle down a slope more slippery than K2 + WD40. By this logic, I'm hurting families by not buying up various fried foods whenever I walk into Oracle. Extending this logic, any striking employee or locking employer should be castigated, based solely on the negative Butterfly Effect consequences of a work stoppage. As in, autoworkers should never strike because they might deprive order takers at fast food drive-thru windows.

The argument is that a) the lockout actually boosts other sectors of the economy, which wasn't actually shown in that Slate piece that purports to show that (check the significance levels, brother), b) that stopping a $4 billion operation for leverage's sake is the same as an individual's consumers spending habits and c) a labor strike to protect livable, decent healthcare and promised benefits is equivalent to going to brink for $2.1 billion instead of $2.09 billion. Those arguments are ... nonsensical.

This isn't a Butterfly Effect: the NBA cancelled 100 preseason games because of a spat over slivers of billions of dollars, and because of those cancelled games, employees who depend on the NBA's presence for work lost wages. Should this stoppage continue through January, that will continue to happen. That is not fake. That is real. It is actually happening.

If the lockout boosts attendance at the local megaplex, how does that help the arena workers? Are they going to quit their jobs at the arena and go work at the movie theater, and then come out when the lockout ends? No! They'll hold out and wait for the lockout to end -- because it will end, in all likelihood within a few months if not a year. But they will suffer a disruption ... so that the owners and players can play this war game to the brink.

Strauss also claims that arena operators like SMG, which runs the show at the Oracle in Oakland, will simply reassign employees to other locations they operate, like the San Francisco Convention Center. This assumes that SMG prefers to increase its labor costs out of the goodness of its heart, which obviously, is a flawed assumption. If Oracle workers do get sent through the Transbay Tunnel to take work at the Convention Center, one assumes they will replacing others. How 'bout that Butterfly Effect? Turns out it works both ways.

The problem with Slate's piece -- as explored with a rapier by Andrew Sharp on Thursday -- and Strauss' persistent contention that NBA fans' empathy is a pose is that empathy is not a macro position. Many of us know these people. We know the vital work they do to improve our entertainment experience, the low wages they typically get paid and the fickle position they are in because of the lockout. We know that many of them currently operate under a gag order and have no way of screaming to the Heavens that, "This sucks." To speak up for the them, to give voice to the muzzled is not a pose, brother. This is not selfish intentions wrapped up in "But think of the kids!" It's the assertion that brinkmanship by the wealthy that costs the working class their living is scandalous and worthy of scorn. That someone like Strauss wouldn't feel that way because of the macro economics involved is fine. But don't insist that no one feels that way, because you're wrong.


The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.