Lockouts Loom Large

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Examiner Media Sports Columnist Jamie O39Grady

Lately there’s been quite a bit of chatter in the media regarding an impending crisis of epic proportions. No, it’s not the serious business going on over in Egypt. And no, it’s not the economy-collapsing budget deficit poised to end humanity as we know it. Heck, it’s not even the rumored export of Jersey Shore to the Amalfi Coast that has everyone so worried (although that little experiment isn’t very likely to boost America’s global standing).

Actually, the doomsday scenario that keeps me, Roger Goodell and David Stern up at night is the very real threat of a lock-out of not one, but two of this country’s four major professional sports leagues. Only in America can billionaires and millionaires manage to potentially screw up a virtually endless source of income for themselves and entertainment for others.

So what’s going on here, you ask?

Good question.

The analysis is actually somewhat complicated, depending on whether it’s the National Football League or the National Basketball Association that we’re talking about. Sure, both leagues feature freakishly athletic and spoiled millionaire athletes that defy laws of gravity and laws against driving under the influence. Additionally, the NFL and NBA each have team owners that are as eccentric (to say the least) as they are dirty filthy stinkin’ rich. Most importantly, however, each league built for itself a ridiculously successful business model that has exceeded the wildest dreams of its founding and contributing members.

For the uninitiated, a lockout is essentially management’s answer to labor’s strike. “Strike that. Reverse it.” The owners and players operate under what is known as a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) which is intended to govern all transactions between the sides during the life of an existing CBA. Issues arise when a given CBA doesn’t adjust for unforeseen economic conditions, and therefore league profitability takes a big hit.

At present, NFL and NBA owners are crying poverty, yet they are unwilling to open their books to prove just how destitute their collective franchises are. Shocking. That said, the NFL’s and the NBA’s fortunes are likely to be quite different.

For the NFL, it seems, nothing can derail the league’s long term popularity or sustainability. Nothing other than the owners’ greed or the players’ complete out-of-touchedness on incessant public display, that is.

Due to the massive TV contracts, endless merchandising of licensed apparel, and exploding interest in the league from gambling and fantasy play, the NFL is a cash cow. Football has become America’s new passtime.

And why not? It’s fast. It’s sexy. It’s just the sort of immediate gratification entertainment experience that our enlightened society can’t get enough of. And therein lies one of the problems.

NFL owners want to expand the current 16-game Regular Season schedule to 18 games. The players are decidedly against such a change, and rightly so. You see, unlike the NBA, NFL player contracts are not guaranteed, and an injury can “deprive” a player of millions of dollars in annual income. More games equal more injuries, and with no contractual protection against being summarily dismissed by their ungrateful employer when they’re hurt on the field of battle, NFL players have a point. Consider that the average playing career in the NFL is only three seasons. That number is only likely to go down if more games are played each year.

Then again, consider that the average annual salary for an NFL player is around $800,000.00. It doesn’t take a math wizard to calculate approximately $2.4M worth of income during a player’s pro football career. Even with an 18-game schedule, that comes to $43,000 per game played. That’s more than many people make in a year! Is it the owners’ fault that players don’t plan wisely for their future? Do the owners force the players to divest themselves of their income in favor of diamond crusted necklaces and 20″ rims? Certainly not.

Current NFL players also haven’t done themselves any favors in the sympathy department by failing to speak up regarding the long term disability benefit issue for retired players ravaged by debilitating injuries sustained on the field. For a league worth billions of dollars, one would think that setting aside a relative pittance of funds for the long term health care of its members should be a “no-brainer” in the court of public opinion. What? Too soon for concussion jokes?

NBA players are much better off. The average player in “The Association” makes around $5.5M per season, and their contracts are guaranteed. Neither injury, nor poor play or bad hair can void an inked deal in the NBA. Even choking out your coach won’t necessarily result in a contract being rescinded! All of which presents a conundrum for pro basketball. At a time when fans have little patience for athletes’ shenanigans, even the slightest drop in attendance can have profound effects on the fiscal health of the league. NBA players staunchly refuse to accept a cut in their future salaries, let alone a claw-back of previous contractual terms, but it’s hard to identify with someone who makes a lifetime of an ordinary person’s income in one year. Playing a game. Add a sense of player entitlement to the mix, and dark days may lie ahead.

But I digress.

The point here is that owners and players in both the NFL and NBA need a major reality check. They need to take a look around them, and understand that their lifeblood, the average fan, is suffering on an economic scale not seen since the Great Depression. Fans don’t want to hear about billionaires and millionaires fighting over more slices of their massive pie, especially when it means that games may be canceled.

As Major League Baseball found out first-hand in 1994 when a labor dispute shortened the season and eliminated the Word Series, fans will not put up with this kind of selfish behavior. The NFL and NBA, and its owners and players, would be wise to consider that it took many years for baseball to rebound, and by the time it did, the NFL had surpassed it in popularity.

Maybe it’s time to start watching soccer.

The Payoff Pitch brings you Jamie O’Grady’s distinct take on New York and national sports every Monday. Having previously worked as a Contributing Writer for MLB.com., Jamie is also a practicing lawyer and an unapologetic Yankees, Knicks and Giants fan. He lives in Mount Kisco with his wife, Sarah, and son, Jack.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @BronXoo

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