Are lockouts, labor wars new normal in sports world?

Published July 19, 2011 12:19 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tuesday marked Day 112 of the NFL lockout. It was also Day 5 of the NBA lockout.

With no immediate end in sight for either work stoppage, and the NHL just six years removed from a lost 2004-05 season victimized by a lockout, professional sports fans are growing accustomed to intricate breakdowns of labor negotiations replacing their preferred 24/7 modern diet of results, statistics, analysis, news and rumors.

Is this the new normal? Are the realities of the real world taking the place of sports' billion-dollar fantasy land? Do diehards need an economics degree just to follow their favorite team?

Yes and no, sports labor analysts say.

Fans long ago adjusted to the dollar's mighty impact on the modern game. Everything from free agency to $100 million contracts are routine, while most hardcore devotees are familiar enough with the NBA's salary cap to know the lasting impact of Andrei Kirilenko's six-year, $86 million maximum-contract extension — and the enormous weight that was lifted when AK came off the Jazz's books July 1.

Labor wars aren't new, either. Sports history is loaded with hard-fought and highly contested battles between owners and players, with some long-postponed decisions ending up in the imposing hands of the United States Supreme Court.

But new lines connect the current NFL and NBA lockouts, and some of the main themes uniting both strike at the heart of a big-money sports world that becomes more big business as each year goes by.

"I've certainly thought about it a lot," said Gabe Feldman, Tulane law professor and director of the school's sports law program. "I don't think it's a new problem. I think it may have gotten worse because the stakes have gotten higher; there's more to fight over."

Rich and connected

Strip away the rhetoric and novel-length collective bargaining agreements (CBA), and each league is ultimately fighting about money. Pro football collects $9 billion in annual revenue; the NBA took in $4 billion last season. Splitting proceeds among owners and players — sides that have separate interests and goals but promote the same trademarked logos — was never easy. But now the payout is supremely rich and only getting richer, as television dividends skyrocket and each sport continues to spread its worldwide reach. Top the feast with fans' insatiable appetite for nonstop information and entertainment, and even CBA discussions have become headline news in 2011.

"It may have taken on more prominence because sports have become so much more popular that, in a way, there's a lot more at stake for fans and for media and for sponsors," Feldman said. "It's become a much more important part of everyday life for people. The thought of missing a regular-season NFL game 20, 25 years ago may not have been that horrible. But today it shocks people to think that a Sunday can go by in the fall or the winter without an NFL game."

The NFL and NBA lockouts also share legal connections. Attorney Jeffrey Kessler represents the NFL and NBA players associations, while law firm Proskaeur Rose speaks for both leagues. NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — still booed for his role during the 2004-05 lockout — also crossed paths at the firm.

"You can be sure they're talking the same strategy. … You've got a lot of institutional history here, and they've seen it all," Feldman said. "[The NBA is] going to take lessons, not only from the NFL, but from the NHL in the past."

Separate and divided

David Carter sees even deeper connections and larger problems. The executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute said that the sports world is as fluid as any other in the modern business environment. As a result, the NFL and NBA must periodically assess their work models, especially after an economic recession. But while an in-depth evaluation of profits and losses makes perfect financial sense, the sports' reliance upon extended CBAs does not.

"You expect a labor accord to work during multiple business cycles? You've got to have a pretty strong crystal ball to make that work," Carter said.

Carter's big-picture vision is even more troubling. He sees a sports industry that is out of alignment and whose troubles are highlighted by pro football's conflicted interests.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell works for league owners, who often own teams for a decade or more. Players average just three and a half years in uniform, though, and are represented by a union that must balance their immediate needs with long-term demands.

Then there is the financial divide. TV contracts are inked for about 10 years; sponsorships can top out after just one season; and some businesses' primary monetary involvement with the league comes in the form of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl.

"Everybody's trying to get their investment back over a different time," Carter said.

Which means that any time big money is on the table and a CBA is about to expire in sports' new world order, fans could often be forced to search for new entertainment. And that impossible-to-ignore split between owners and players? Wide and getting wider.

"They have to get to the point where they understand that the so-called new normal is pretty different," Carter said.


Twitter: @tribjazz —

Lockout watch

(As of Tuesday)

NFL • Day 112

NBA • Day 5 —

Lockout links

The NFL and NBA lockouts share legal connections. Attorney Jeffrey Kessler represents the NFL and NBA players associations, while law firm Proskaeur Rose is tied to both leagues. NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also shared starts at the firm. David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute: "The labor deal that they're [locked] into seems to be about two or three times as long as the business cycle that we go through. … You expect a labor accord to work during multiple business cycles? You've got to have a pretty strong crystal ball to make that work."

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