NFL vs. NBA: Not the Same Lockout

NFL vs. NBA: Not the Same Lockout


Fans collectively sighed and gasped (or did they gasp and sigh?) when the NBA announced its lockout July 1st. Fans lumped the NBA labor woes with the NFL's thinking it was the same fight of rich athletes versus richer owners. While there are some strong characteristics shared by both leagues, vast differences make the fights two completely different animals. Fans: adjust your worries accordingly. The differences:

1. All NFL teams are making money and for the most part are effectively run, while many NBA teams are losing money and are poorly run.
The NFL is currently the most successful and financially viable sports league in North American sports. It's Super Bowl is one of the most watched events in the world, fantasy football revolutionized fan interaction, interest, and loyalty to the sport, and fans will tune in to watch practically any of the league's 30 teams play each other. Most fans would not watch a mid season game between the Sacramento Kings and the Milwaukee Bucks. On the other hand, plenty of fans would tune in to watch the Detroit Lions square off against the Cincinnatti Bengals, because over 3,000 fantasy leagues have Cedric Benson and Matthew Stafford determining whether a team wins or loses that week.

The NFL's hard salary cap and revenue sharing agreement amongst its teams gives every team an opportunity to be effective and run easier. The NFL has a tremendous advantage over basketball by being infused with loads of talent every year who can be effective immediately on the field while it may take a few years for an NBA player's body and basketball IQ to rise to a high level. Every year a team from nowhere goes from last in a division to first. Because of the ease of competiveness of teams, small market teams can make money and draw fan interest nationwide. Green Bay is the smallest city for a professional sports team in the four major sports leagues, but has one of the largest fan bases. Pittsburgh and Kansas City are other small market teams who enjoy highly loyal and well traveled fan bases.

On the other hand, the NBA has a problem with small market teams. The league's history is far shorter than of the NFL, and its small market teams are relatively young. Fan interest depends on those teams being good, and many of them stay bad for years. In an era where players want to play for a big city for better marketing opportunities or live comfortably in warm weather, small market teams in the NBA struggle to keep stars, stay competitive, and draw fans. In addition, while the NFL draft is 7 rounds long and scores of other players succeed as undrafted free agents, the NBA doesn't have such a pool of talent. The NBA draft is 2 short rounds and most of the talent goes as deep as half of the first round. Many teams are perpetually bad and make bad choices in the draft year after year. Ultimately, it leads to a situation where 11 to as many as 23 of the leagues 30 teams lose money. The NBA actual now runs and controls the New Orleans Hornets because it was run so poorly. No NFL team loses money.

The NBA may have had a successful year in 2010-2011 due to the intrigue in watching the Miami Heat saga, but such a boon is not guaranteed to the league every year. Owners and players are both clear on the reality of a league not necessarily struggling financially, but might be stretched too far franchise wise. The chasm between owner and players becomes difficult to maneuver when both sides know the situation is poor. On the other hand, the NFL is clearly making tons of money and has an extremely lucrative new television contract. NFL owners must play hardball, but may be willing to compromise in the end instead of alienate fans and risk money.

2. The NFL is more lawyered up than the NBA.
The NFL was far more prepared for its lockout than the NBA. Two years ago the NFL and the NFLPA were taking jabs at each other and advancing legal arguments in the media jostling for a future court battle. The NFL is being battled in court on multiple fronts on multiple issues. Sounds like a bad thing eh? Not exactly. No one wants to take a lawsuit to its full conclusion and deal with the uncertainty of a verdict. Settlement is GOOD. Both sides are spending millions of dollars in lawyers fees jockeying for position to determine what courts will say about collusion, validity of union activity, and the anti-trust exemption. However, neither side really wants to find out. The pressure of the long term effects of how a ruling will affect future collective bargaining agreement negotiations is too scary a prospect to bear for both the NFL and the NFLPA. Courts are literally forcing both sides to negotiate a solution.

On the other hand, the NBA was in denial about a potential lockout. Sure, David Stern threatened contraction and player representatives like Derek Fisher made noise in the media over the course of last season. However, no one was truly prepared for a lockout from a legal standpoint. The NBAPA and the NBA cannot even agree on whether the NBA's losses 2 years ago were based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Because the NBA does not have the same force mechanisms of negotiation in place, the NBA lockout stands to last far, far longer than the NFL lockout.

3. There is lucrative, alternative work for NBA players.
The NFL's success is tremendously helped by the uniqueness of the locality of its sport. The NFL may be a popular product to sell across the pond, but it and of itself is a sport not played overseas. The leagues that do exist in North America (CFL & UFL) are vastly inferior leagues paying pennies on the dollar of what players could make in the NFL. Further, no player would want to play in an inferior league and risk being injured.

On the other hand, international interest and involvement in basketball is very high. European and South American leagues have pretty decent talent playing in their leagues, and teams' rich owners are willing to pay millions of dollars to players. Look no further than Deron Williams $5 million deal with a team in Turkey and potential tours in China by Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade and you'll see even megastars are willing to work overseas. No alternate work plan drives players to get a deal done in the NFL. Sure NBA players want to stay in the NBA and want to get a deal done, but their drive and motivation frankly is not as high as players in the NFL.

Bottom Line: The NFL is a rich, robust, and well run league, with viable teams throughout, and well positioned for solution to players who don't have alternate work (and thus more willing to work out a solution. The NBA, while a well run league, does has some large holes in it team wise, and has not positioned itself well for a solution and have players who could make good money elsewhere. Look for the NFL to come up with a solution in time to play all of its games, while the NBA may miss half a season or more. So NFL fans, rejoice and get ready for your fantasy draft. NBA fans, get a satellite and prepare to watch Euroleague basketball.

Exavier B. Pope, Esq. is an entertainment and sports attorney and legal blogger for Chicago Now. All opinions expressed are those solely of Mr. Pope.

(c) 2011, Exavier Pope

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  • I was always thinking that once Plaxico Burress made it back, the NFL would be risking less of a lockout and more of a Glock-out.

    Guess I was wrong. But at least I beat Tracy Swartz to that bad pun.

  • I don't think you beat anyone to that bad pun, as no one would have attempted it.

  • Very interesting! Thank you for sharing. I had no idea the NBA was running their business like THIS. yikes.

  • A couple of other points, some legal, some not.

    On the legal one, everyone (that I heard in the media) was wrong in saying that the 8th Circuit ruled the lockout legal. What it actually ruled was that the Norris-LaGuardia Act applied to both sides in a labor dispute, and hence the lockout couldn't be enjoined. If that stands up, the whole antitrust strategy goes bust (except, as Hub Arkush says, for current free agents who may have a damages claim, although since there is no paycheck until the season starts, I don't see any damages).

    Besides whether NBA teams are losing money, I think that another thing that is animating 29 owners is that they don't again want to be played as saps by another Miami three.

    Finally, we don't need Euroleague basketball. There is plenty of professional basketball coming out of several North Carolina institutions (not including Mike's Bobcats), Kentucky institutions, and the Big Ten of 12 and the Big Twelve of 10.

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