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Steve Aschburner

Two sides dispute split, back away from bargaining table

Posted Oct 4 2011 6:50PM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- Numbers were out in force at the NBA's latest round of collective-bargaining talks Tuesday and it had nothing to do with total of people in the room.

These were big numbers, telling numbers, the numbers that ultimately had to come out. Like 47 percent. And 53 percent. And surprisingly, even dramatically, a suggested 50-50 split of the league's nearly $4 billion in basketball-related income by NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy Adam Silver that they figured might get the job done.

They all were tossed out in the most serious ways this time, including that big, round middle ground that will look like a logical solution to many NBA fans. Yet it wasn't enough to get a deal done -- or even lay the foundation for one -- that would end the labor lockout after more than three months in time to preserve what's left of the preseason.

Worse than that, the start of the regular season almost certainly will be affected now. And the warring sides have no further negotiating sessions scheduled.

"Today was not the day to get this done," said Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers, also the president of the National Basketball Players Association. "We were not able to get close enough to close the gap for what would be the future [CBA] to be something that's fair and amenable to all of our players, not just today but going forward."

Players of the future might or might not appreciate that stand. But the players of the present -- along with the teams and fans of the present -- will incur losses both financially and of the basketball they enjoy. By the time the union first, and Stern and Silver second, were done explaining their respective positions, the NBA already had canceled the balance of the preseason.

"By Monday, we'll have no choice but to cancel the first two weeks of the season," Stern said. "The losses to the players as well as the owners is going to be enormous here."

He estimated the league's cost of losing the preseason at between $175 million to $200 million. Silver said the first two weeks of November could cost the NBA "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Union executive director Billy Hunter, meanwhile, calculated the cost to the players in salary and other compensation forfeited at $350 million per month of regular season cancelled. If the entire 2011-12 schedule were torpedoed, each side stood to lose in excess of $2 billion.

Yet they're not even booked to talk again this week.

"Our guys have indicated a willingness to lose games," Hunter said, standing at the front of a room flanked by Fisher, members of the union's executive committee and NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. "When they stand up here behind us today, that's what they're saying, because if they didn't feel that way, then we might have done something different."

There was, in a somewhat stunning revelation by Stern and Silver, a chance to do something radically different from the plodding pace and wary circling of the BRI split. Though it was not menitioned when the union spoke first with reporters, the commissioner and his second-in-command said that -- after talks stalled over the proposed players' share at 47 percent (owners' offer) vs. 53 percent (union's demand) -- they tried to split the difference.

Both said, and repeated the chronology for clarity, that a small group from the owners side (Stern, Silver and San Antonio's Peter Holt, chairman of the labor relations committee) suggested a 50/50 split as "a concept." This was based on the familiar definition of BRI, not a new-fangled version that would have given the owners an extra $350 million annually in deductions.

Hunter's only mention of a 50/50 offer from the owners in the union's news conference was pegged, he said, to the smaller "new BRI." There were reports that the plan evolved into a "band" of 49-to-51 percent offered by the owners to a 51-to-53 percent range sought by the players. If true, that narrowed the gap to two percentage points worth a total of approximately $80 million annually.

Each side headed into its separate room to consider the prospect. Stern said he was confident he could persuade the owners to buy in.

"We went back to our group to, in essence, discuss and try to sell that concept in or see if it was acceptable," Silver said. "While we were in the process of doing that, they came back to us and said that was unacceptable. A 50/50 split of all BRI was unacceptable to the players."

If accurate, that concept -- which would have had to be made formally and surely would have required some give-and-take on salary cap and other "system" issues -- might have propelled the warring sides toward a deal within days. The very term of 50/50, Silver said, "sounds like a partnership." And it likely is where the average fan will see a compromise to be had.

The union reps already had departed when the 50/50 plan was revealed to reporters. But NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler, asked about such a Solomon move generally, said the players feel it would be a false compromise, since they never started high in their salary demands. From the start, they have been facing givebacks from the 57 percent share of BRI they received in the previous contract.

They said Tuesday that they based their 53 percent offer on two major factors. First, Hunter said, that share would represent more than $200 million in transfers back to the owners, accounting for a larger percentage of the NBA's $300 million in claimed losses for 2010-11 than their old 57 percent share. Over the six years of a new CBA, the players would be giving back in excess of $1 billion.

Second, the players based their demand for more than half -- there seemed to be a point or two of wiggle room in their statements, but no more -- on their view of their contribution to the NBA product.

"For us, to be clear, we throw out a lot of numbers, we talk about a lot of percentages," Fisher said. "But the reality is, we're standing on something that is different than money or percentages. The reality is, we believe that we're the most significant and most important asset to this particular business.

"And with the level of revenue that will continue to be generated as this business grows, that there's just a fair place that the compensation should start for this particular group. We're not saying it should be all ours. We're not saying we're the only thing that matters. But there's just a fair place that that should be for the talent and the skill that drive the business."

Fisher dismissed the notion that the rattling his union has taken from a select group of players' agents influenced its current bargaining stance. He also said the players aren't relying on legal remedies.

Skeptics might say that neither side was willing to blink as long as the real leverage has yet to be applied: the loss of games and revenues that will test both sides' resolve. But right now, in a fight over the split of money that soon will be evaporating, they each have 100 percent of nothing.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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