I like to think of myself as fairly cynical.
No, check that, downright jaded.
But when NBA owners and players met with U.S. federal mediator George Cohen
for 16 hours Tuesday, a foreign sensation washed over me: Optimism. Optimism for a labour deal that was further fuelled by another 14 hours of talks over the next two days.
Cynicism aside, it's only logical that if two groups are locked in a room with a professional problem-solver for that long, you would think there should be some progress, right?
With David Stern at home
, presumably downing Echinacea, the talks ended with a thud Thursday afternoon. Then, crickets.
Rightfully so, most of the blame now sits squarely on the shoulders of the owners.
"Preordained" is the word union executive Billy Hunter used Thursday night to describe the tactics of the league in terms of the imminent scuttling of more games, if not the entire 2011-12 season.
The reason? Busting the union and winning this war.
I've been saying for months that the parallels between this situation and the NHL lockout of 2004-05 are identical. There is no question that NHL owners at that time accepted the fact there would be no season -- in September.
When richer teams attempted to break ranks and seek out a deal, they were quashed. And break the union they did, hard salary cap firmly in place. Once the season was cancelled, infighting among players spilled into the media and Bob Goodenow was finished.
NBA owners are essentially banking on the same thing happening here. While they still see a possibility for a shortened schedule, they are locked and loaded for the long haul. It's simple now. Bank on players getting antsy once paychecks are missed, and drive a split down the middle of the Players' Association. Learning from the NHL
If there's one thing from the NHL seven years ago that hasn't been widely discussed here, it's contraction. But the reason for that is simple. Contraction talk in the NHL was mostly driven by Canadian fans, perplexed about professional hockey being played in places like Atlanta and Broward County, Florida (although Atlanta worked out well for Winnipeg, whereas the North American NBA marketplace is saturated).
Still, the reality was/is is no chance. Even with attendance problems, owners are not going to close up shop without a massive buyout (Major League Baseball actually tried this with Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad in 2002), and if you think the unions are rigid against a hard cap, try them on accepting the loss of jobs.
Not going to happen.
When asked about the NBA possibly following an NHL model, Hunter was unequivocal.
"No way in the world," he said.
Let's not forget who Gary Bettman used to work for. Stern clearly kept tabs on how his protégé handled that NHL lockout, and given some of Stern's moves in the past decade, maybe even learned something from The Count about not caring how unlikeable you can become in some markets.
The NBA owners, right or wrong, are determined to implement a more stringent system this time. They need a system that on the whole, saves them from their own stupidity, and they know it. Mistakes in the past, both individual owners and faceless corporate empires like Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment know the loss margins of hanging albatross contracts around their necks.
And while a common players' theme throughout this has been that the game is on the upswing -- citing one of the most exciting playoff seasons in years this spring -- the fact is the game in the eyes of the cash-cow -- otherwise known as the casual fan -- has been on a downswing for almost two decades.
While society in general and this thing called the Internet has changed everything since, around 1991 you could make the case that the NBA was seriously challenging Major League Baseball for second place behind the NFL in the hearts of U.S. pro sports fans. Not the case anymore.
Add an atrocious American economy to the mix and here we are.
But hockey's popularity in the U.S. was in worse shape in 2004 than the NBA's is now. Plus the NBA actually has an American TV contract that pays them more than fruit rind. The fact that the NHL has rebounded nicely with a lot of those casual fans is clearly one of the galvanizing factors NBA owners are thinking about before they go to bed every night.
Never mind that Peter Holt's San Antonio Spurs won three NBA titles with thoroughly competent management, deft drafting and excellent coaching, he's licking his chops at the economic model the similar-in-many-ways Carolina Hurricanes work within.
Business is business.
Can you let the players off the hook here? While their apparent stubbornness over the 50-50 BRI split (something two guys with a sandwich after a Method Man concert could figure out) is clearly the result of lack of compromise elsewhere from the owners, their inability to understand economic forces leaves them simply looking out of touch.
But they are young millionaires with millionaire agents, so of course they are 'out of touch.' And in the game of millionaires vs. billionaires, we always know who wins.
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