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The Changing Face of the Opposition

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Maybe I’m slow. But it’s only in the last few days that I put together all the clues and came to the realization that the two sides of the NBA labor negotiation are not lining up the way they initially appeared. It no longer seems to be players versus owners. Instead it's become increasingly apparent that the ownership group is divided into two distinct classes, the small media/small market owners (commonly known as the "hawks") and the large market owners (the "doves"). The hawks are struggling to control their expenses and make a profit and want radical changes in the player’s pay structure and the salary cap, and the doves are owners who make money without even trying very hard (Exhibit one: Donald T. Sterling, who, though his team has only rarely made the playoffs turns a profit each and every season). The doves are pretty happy with their situation and would like to maintain the status quo.

Of course this isn't really news and we’ve been aware that the ownership group was divided for a while now, even though they've maintained a rigorous closed-ranks approach. But recently it’s become apparent that the separation in the ownership ranks is something greater than we thought. As a matter of fact, it seems the division between the hawks and doves might actually be greater than the division between doves and the players. As the smoke clears, the view from the battleground has definitely changed. The players no longer look across the trenches at the same foe. Where there was once a united front, there is now a smaller, angrier foe, and some of the owners might actually be aligning themselves next to the players. The dove owner's and the player's interests are more similar than they are different. The hawk owners are willing to shut down the league, the doves and the players want desperately to play basketball.

Of course the ownership agenda has long been controlled by the clever and dynamic David Stern. But there are cracks in the Stern's former iron-grip control. While managed to keep our attention away from his own problems by keeping us focused on a similar potential division in the players ranks. Stern knows that in the current salary-cap structure (which he’s almost single-handedly created) there co-exists a group of superstar players who are woefully underpaid, and a group of everyday-players who are overpaid. Isn’t that the fault-line that might surely rupture? At first glance it would seem so, but superstars have access to income outside the NBA; Lebron James makes far more in endorsements than than he does on his NBA salary… and the superstars know it’s in their best interest to play basketball, not carp about the injustice of a well-paid lower-echelon team mate. The loss of the superstar’s NBA salary, in the short term, isn’t particularly damaging to the superstar's financial well-being... though the loss of a season might be.

But last week, when the owners and the players met with a federal mediator, the ownership division became more obvious. After the owners held a mid-day meeting with the NBA "board of governors", the previously progressive feel of the meetings turned icy. Player's Union head Billy Hunter and the player-reps reported that something must have happened in the BOG meeting. The big owners, particularly James Dolan of the New York Knicks, were obviously unhappy with whatever transpired. It was apparent that the owners were battling one another, struggling for control, and the hawks had apparently won the day. The players were spurned, the ownership clumsily closed ranks and the mediation ended in failure.

In an interview with Bill Simmons earlier this week, Hunter admitted that he had met with David Stern in 2007, and Stern had warned Hunter that there were certain teams losing money and the "system", (the current soft cap, the luxury tax, etc.) would have to changed radically in the next collective bargaining agreement. Hunter claims to have suggested one-point yearly rolloffs of the BRI split until a better balance could be achieved. Stern refused, telling Hunter it wasn’t going to be enough. There was an ownership group who wanted what the NHL and the NFL had, a hard cap… and they were willing to go the extreme and sacrifice a season in order to get it. To Hunter, it seemed that, for the first time in twenty-five years, when Stern first came to power, he was not entirely in control of the owners. There were a new, rebellious breed who wouldn't follow Stern's Pied Piper act. Most of them had bought franchises more recently, for a great deal of money and were not seeing the expected profits. These new owners weren't like the old owners, men who respected Stern for his role in the growth and stability of the league, and who'd seen their equity grow by astonishing factors.

This incident seems tied to a letter written in 2006, by a faction of eight owners and delivered to Stern, (Brian Windhorst writes about it here). The letter seems to be a kind of declaration of war. But is the war between owners and players? Or is it between owners, between Stern and the new guard?

According to Windhorst and perhaps equally significant, and perhaps even more divisive is the galvanic effect the Los Angeles Laker's recent $200 million television deal with Warner Cable might have had on the small market owners. The mighty Lakers have set themselves up to make even grander profit than they ever have before, even while their partners bleed to death in ignominy.

Of course there’s an obvious solution that has nothing to do with the CBA. It's "revenue sharing". But Stern and the owners have declared this item sacred ground, off-limits in the player's negotiations. But even if, god-willing, the players and owners reach a new agreement in the next few days or weeks, where are we, and what's happened to the power of the almighty Stern? Will he retire and be replaced by someone like the ridiculously bi-polar Dan Gilbert? The battle won't really end at all, but it will no longer feature players and owners, it will move to less firm ground, and there will potentially be a great deal at stake. Is this the dawn of even darker days?