STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Any economic growth that depends on people attending pro basketball games will have to wait. The NBA has not cancelled the first two weeks of its season because of a contract dispute between the league and its players. NBA commissioner David Stern says the gap is too significant to bridge right now, while the union president Derek Fisher says a fair deal is not close.
We at least have some fair reporting from NPR's Mike Pesca, who's on the line.
Mike, good morning.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I will try.
INSKEEP: So now, you know, if some relatives of mine were here, they'd probably joke that NBA players usually take the first several weeks of the season off anyway, so what's the problem here. But...
PESCA: Yeah, and the first three quarters of most games.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: That's the joke, anyway. But of course they're out there. They're tough. They're playing hard. Except not now. What are the sticking points?
PESCA: It's really money, and it can get a little complicated. But the players make about 57 percent of all the money that the NBA brings in, and the owners make 43 percent. And the owners have pointed out, not only is that not fair - though they agreed to it - it's hurting business. They say that 22 out of 30 teams are actually losing money. We can argue with that, and it's a good argument, because there are other ways that owners have to make money besides what goes onto the bottom line of those sheets.
But yes, there needs to be an economic reckoning. Both sides realize this. The players are saying we'll take 53 percent. I think the owners are holding out for closer to a 50-50 split.
INSKEEP: But I'm curious, Mike Pesca, are players' salaries really the reason that most NBA teams are losing money right now?
PESCA: Well, it's a huge reason. And the average NBA salary is somewhere between five and $6 million. The NBA players will point that out, but the median is over two million. Here's the problem: If the corrective is point out that your average or median salary is only two million, it's not a very sympathetic stance to take, at least in terms of the public. And yes, you could always make this argument that owners are the ones who sign those contracts. But because of the structure of the deal, contracts are sometimes longer than the owners would like them to be, and also, frankly, longer than a lot of the fans would like them to be. Because a lot of teams have these players on payroll that they're still giving money to that aren't doing much in terms of producing wins.
So it may be a silver lining if something gets worked out. A better deal could actually become fan-friendly if it gets better players who deserve the money on certain teams.
INSKEEP: Help me understand the long-term trend of pro basketball, Mike Pesca. I mean, if I thought about pro football, they've got a certain trend having to do with the fan base, having to do with TV revenues. Where's basketball in all that?
PESCA: Yeah. Well, football is this dominant cultural thing that is setting all sorts of records for TV, and basketball isn't there. But given the fact that we're going through these terrible economic times, attendance has dropped a bit, but you know what? Ninety percent of all arenas are filled on all nights, and it's kind of been that way, at that 90 percent figure, for many years. TV ratings were up last year. A lot of that was because people were very interested in one particular team, the Miami Heat. So national TV broadcasts could show the Heat, and the Heat made it through every round of the playoffs. So people watched that team, even if the Heat didn't win.
Smaller, regional cable networks are experiencing some drop off, and there is a little bit of attendance problems. So, in general, the tickets are fine. The merchandising is fine. Player salaries are the thing that's the drag on the NBA.
INSKEEP: Do they think they have a long-term, positive future, though?
PESCA: Yeah, I think they do. And I think that, you know, Steve Nash today, he kind of - via his Twitter feed - has been framing the argument as good as anyone has been on the players' side. And he's been saying: The NBA has experienced 60 years of growth. They are forecasting for more growth. And we the players have actually asking for less money. So you know who's at fault, here.
But I think the owners would say, yeah, that doesn't matter. We're losing money. And this is why, maybe, in their negotiation, they could say we could take this stance. We're very fine with not playing these games, because if you lose money, the fewer games you play, the less money you lose. At least that would be the owners' argument, where the players will say: We're taking this stance, and it shows how solid we are in unity with one another. But, you know, every couple weeks, they lose millions of dollars. They probably feel that pinch more than billionaire owners.
INSKEEP: Do you think two weeks is going to be enough for them to resolve this?
PESCA: Maybe, maybe not. Last time any games were lost - the only time was 1998, '99 season. But we should just call it the '99 season, because, you know, more than three months worth of games were lost. You could still have a fine basketball season in that short amount of time, but some negotiating has to get done soon.
INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks very much.
PESCA: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: You hear him on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
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