The battle begins. LeBron James against Dirk Nowitzki. The superstar-laden Miami Heat against the resilient, proud Dallas Mavericks for the 2011 NBA Finals.
But while fans buzz about one of the most exciting title matchups of the past decade, a deeper current runs through the final round of the season.
A glitzy league that prides itself on star power and a passionate worldwide following is just 30 days away from a widely predicted lockout. The same forces that brought Miami Thrice together in South Beach and allowed outlandish Dallas owner Mark Cuban to spend more than $90 million to piece together the revamped Mavs are tearing the league apart. And sports labor analysts say that small-market teams such as the Jazz could be the ones soon controlling collective bargaining agreement negotiations if the NBA's bright lights go dark July 1.
"There's no question about it: They have to dig their heels in," said Patrick Rishe, Webster University sports businesses professor and director of Sports Impacts.
Superstars dominate and control the modern NBA, while large-market teams dictate the agenda. But as the league achieves new levels of popularity and competition reaches levels it hasn't touched since Michael Jordan first retired, the game is also approaching one of its darkest hours. A lockout would not just result in the NBA versus the NBA Players Association. It would be a three-part battle, with financially burdened lesser-known teams fighting for a profitable existence.
"If a team is in the red, they're better off not playing than they are playing. â¦ Pretty much everybody sees the economic system is broken," said Larry Coon, a CBA expert and ESPN.com contributor.
If there is a work stoppage, small-market teams will use the downtime as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to level the playing field. Jazz President Randy Rigby declined an interview request, directing labor-related questions to the NBA. But the core issues at stake during CBA negotiations are especially important to Utah, and the franchise is not content with the current setup. Neither is NBA Commissioner David Stern.
"We want a system where fans believe that their team has a real shot at it," Stern said. "That there's not going to be a sport in my lifetime that has a round ball that's large and brown that has one team with a $200 million payroll and another with a $40 million payroll."
The Jazz played an integral part in negotiations during the 1998-1999 lockout. Former owner Larry Miller served on the CBA committee, joining Stern and other key league executives in talks that eventually forced the NBPA to split and divide. Jazz CEO Greg Miller does not serve on the current NBA labor relations committee, which was reorganized in 2009. But Miller has taken an increased role in league affairs during the past year, and Utah is viewed by many as a model small-market franchise.
Having five small-market representatives on the labor relations committee should provide Utah with additional backing if there is a lockout. But like-minded organizations will also have to stick together.
"The list of teams that are losing a boatload of money just goes on and on and on," said Gary Roberts, dean and professor at the Indiana University Law School-Indianapolis and an expert in sports law.
Part of the reason Utah traded All-Star Deron Williams to New Jersey in February was because of the fear of losing him to a large-market franchise, despite Williams still having 1Â½ years left on his contract. As long as organizations such as Miami can subvert the CBA or Dallas can spend freely without a fierce penalty, analysts believe that the NBA will continue to belong to the rich and famous.
In the NFL, All-Pro athletes like Peyton Manning pledge allegiance to Indianapolis, while Drew Brees takes pride in playing for New Orleans. In MLB, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in a Brewers uniform through 2020, going so far as to defer up-front money to aid his team's long-term chances. In the NBA, such examples are on the verge of extinction.
"They would rather sacrifice an entire season than play another one under a failed system," Coon said.
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Major players in NBA lockout
Small-market teams such as the Jazz could play a significant role during collective bargaining agreement negotiations if there is an NBA lockout. Key issues like a hard salary cap, the end of fully guaranteed contracts and increased revenue sharing are essential to Utah's long-term success, and they have been publicly supported by Commissioner David Stern.
NBA Labor Relations committee
Peter Holt • San Antonio, chairman*
Clay Bennett • Oklahoma City*
Jeanie Buss • Los Angeles Lakers
Mark Cuban • Dallas
Jim Dolan • New York
Dan Gilbert • Cleveland*
Larry Miller • Portland*
Robert Sarver • Phoenix
Bob Vander Weide • Orlando
Wyc Grousbeck • Boston
Glen Taylor • Minnesota, chairman of the board*
*Small-market team NBA Finals Game 1
Tonight: Dallas at Miami, 7 p.m., Ch. 4