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NBA Labor Talks Break Down, Preseason Canceled


National Basketball Association players and owners are not any closer to settling their labor dispute. With the season scheduled to begin on November 1st, there's a real chance regular season games could be lost. After yesterday's talks ended without much success, league commissioner David Stern officially cancelled the remainder of the preseason. Joining us for more on this dispute is NPR's Mike Pesca.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: This is a disagreement over money, right? But is it pretty money, pure and simple?

PESCA: Well, yes. It's definitely money. I don't know if it's that simple, because there's so much money involved. There's $4 billion in annual revenue. And under the old agreement, the players got 57 percent, the owners 43. But now the players are being asked to take less money, because 22 of the 30 NBA teams have at least paper losses.

You know, owners might have other ways to make money through basketball that's not showing up on the sheet, so maybe we take those paper losses with a grain of salt. But it does seem like the owners are really quite willing to cancel the season on the theory that the less basketball played, the less money they lose.

The big announcement that came out of the negotiation yesterday, was that David Stern supposedly - or David Stern himself confirmed this - that he floated the idea of a 50/50 split in terms of revenue and the players rejected it.

But it should be noted that the players characterized that proposal as, well, what if I offer this to the owners, what would you say then? And the players were saying we - if it was firm it would be one thing. But just the idea of maybe talking about a split is not something we want to say yes to and then have to negotiate with that yes.

MONTAGNE: How, Mike, does this NBA dispute compare to the labor situation the NFL went through, which was settled before any regular season games were lost?

PESCA: Right. And that point you just made is why sports fans want it to be very similar. And of course it is similar in that, in America these days, there aren't that many strikes. I mean, last year I think, according to bureau labor statistics, in companies more than 1,000, there were only nine strikes. And there were even fewer than that the year before. And lockouts are almost totally unheard of, because what kind of situations do you run into where workers are being paid so much?

But there are big differences. The NFL season or careers for players are a lot shorter. The NFL is a much more brutal game. And the reason that's important is that players were willing to maybe negotiate on safety, so they'd take less money. In exchange, fewer hard practices, better benefits. That doesn't really apply to the NBA.

The other similarity is that the NFL, one of the tactics in their negotiation, was they decertified the union, which means the union dissolved. And that caused trouble, potentially, for the owners. And the NBA's considering decertifications. No one's quite sure what it will really do. It seems clear that it's not a magic bullet, but it might be one of the next tactics.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about this? It was the Players Union President, Derek Fisher, who said yesterday's negotiating session was a very huge day. But then the quote from union chief Billy Hunter was, "our guys have indicated a willingness to lose games."

PESCA: Yes. And that has happened before, you know. In 1998 and 1999 it was only a 50-game season. And 50 games is still quite a bit, no one remembers that year with an asterisk. It still seemed like an NBA season.

However, even though they're willing to lose games that doesn't mean it might be a smart move to lose games. Because in '98 and '99, yeah, they took less money than they were offered months into the negotiation. Also, players might play overseas. That's an option. But not every player is going to get that opportunity and they're not going to make as much money as they would in the NBA.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Pesca.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.