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Q&A with NBPA executive director Michele Roberts: Part 2

In the second half of our interview, Roberts speaks on league finances, the future of the TV deal, and virtual reality.

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This is Part 2 of SB Nation’s interview with the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, Michele Roberts. If you missed Part 1, in which Roberts discussed NBA fashion, THINK450, the influence of LeBron James on the league, and medical marijuana, you can read that here.

Let’s get into some financial issues. This summer, teams are already talking about a lack of cap space. Are you concerned that given the cap explosion of a couple of years ago and what may be available now, there may be an income inequality gap depending on when you were a free agent?

No. I get the term income inequality ...

I came up with it this morning, so it may not be correct usage.

You hear it in political discussions all the time outside of sport. Everyone is talking about how even though unemployment is low and the economy is in a good place that there still is income inequality. I’m concerned about that as an American, obviously. That’s outside of sport.

All of this would be eliminated if the damn cap was, but I’ve said that enough. [Laughs]

In our sport, the timing of your free agency has a lot to do with it, but you are paid whatever a team is willing to pay. I am not concerned that a player who is now finding himself in free agency, and is worthy of a max contract, won’t get one. I think he will.

What these teams have shown is they will recognize and they will pay talent. Now, they’re taxed heavily if they exceed the cap and are in the luxury tax area, but they will pay them. Because if they don’t, another team will.

I’m not at the point of worrying about it. The cap will grow a little bit this year, it will grow another couple of points next year. We’re still on an upward trajectory in terms of BRI [basketball-related income].

Were there some players who are luckier than others because they were free agents two years ago, as opposed to now? There’s no question about that.

But I’m heartened that those players who are not the LeBrons and the Stephs, whose compensation is typically what I call statutory because it’s set by the CBA; minimum guys, mid-level guys. All those salaries increased by 45 percent in the new CBA so that class of players is protected.

The marquee players? They somehow manage to get paid and so I’m not worried about them.

So we’ll see. If two years from now it looks like salaries have been suppressed because teams are not paying money because of the luxury tax, we’ll talk about it.

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

What happens seven years from now after the TV contract is over? I know it’s a long way off, but you have to start thinking about it now.

I think that’s the question of the hour. I applaud the league. I was the executive director for maybe two months when they announced the TV deal. It was a huge, mammoth document. I’m a lawyer, so I read it. I remember thinking there’s no chance in hell they’ll get another deal like this.

ESPN wanted the game in a big way. We’re all seeing the unbundling that’s happening. Right now, people are not watching TV the same way they did 20 years ago. ESPN is not going to be able to make me or you buy their channel.

Millennials, if they’re buying anything, they’re not buying these packets. They’re buying a la carte. That alone is going to make it impossible to replicate the kind of deal that was negotiated in 2014.

What everyone’s trying to do is figure out new ways of generating the same revenue consistent with the way people are now ingesting the game. These little things, these phones, have transformed the world.

If you go to a live game, it’s amusing to me. You will see, especially the young fans, they’re on this phone as they’re watching the game. They’re doing things to engage in the game. People are exploring social media, streaming services, just to figure out how we can monetize the experience of being at a game to substitute for the TV dollars that are no longer going to be there.

Live sports are going to continue to be in demand off broadcasting. It consistently beats every other programming on the planet. We’ll still have some ability to generate income that way, but we’re all about the business of finding alternative sources.

I’ll say it again: How do you spell gambling? That’s a pot of money that’s sitting there not being collected by the players or the teams or the league, which I think is a legitimate area of inquiry.

I did a virtual reality demonstration with Bradley Beal and Anthony Davis. It struck me that this will be the next thing that will be monetized, which is you won’t just be getting virtual reality. You’ll be getting Bradley’s Beal’s reality.

It’s so cool. I can’t talk out of school because a lot of this is obviously a negotiation, but the technology that is potentially going to be used in sports is really mind-boggling. It’s exciting.

This is a sport whose popularity is growing, but you can only fit so many bodies in an arena. Gate receipts are important. I’m not suggesting they’re not. But the world is so much bigger than that arena and there’s so much in our games, that being able to deliver the game in all sorts of different ways all over the planet, there’s unbelievable value in that.

Adam Silver made that point, as well. You’re constrained by the physical space of an arena, so how do we bring that experience to more people.

It’s exciting. It’s going to take some creativity and risk taking, and all of that is only a plus.

Read Part 1 of the interview.