The NBA Quagmire, Part II: The Solution You’ve Been Waiting For

by Dax-Devlon Ross

You may want to read Part I first

 “[Football when you really come down to it, belongs in the sphere of human emotions. Real Madrid is a kind of religion for million all over the world. You can’t have that in the hands of one individual.”

                                                           –Two-time President of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez

I’m over the bickering. I’m over the greed. I’m over the sometimey product. I’m over the corny gimmicks. I’m over the lies. I’m over the overpriced tickets. I’m over its celebrity infested culture. I’m over long, wasteful season. I’m over perennial loser squads. I’m over the boring Dunk Contest. I’m over the drawn out playoffs. I’m over the inflated stats. I’m over David Stern’s reign as the longest-tenured commissioner and his smug attitude attitude toward everyone. Everyone. I’m over the no-hand check rule. I’m over the defensive three-second rule. I’m over the three-point shot. I’m over the television timeouts. I’m over the refs engineering decisions. I’m over a league that caters to people who aren’t even fans. I’m over the tattoos. I’m over the NBA.

But I’m not over basketball. And I never will be.

The owners of the league that has made my long, brutal New York winters bearable have erased at least the first month of the season because they can’t reach an agreement with the players. It’s the same intractable discourse ruining every sector of our society. One highly-compensated group doesn’t want to compromise with another highly compensated group so everyone loses. It’s a different sort of partisanship, but partisanship nonetheless. And it’s further proof of the grave and lasting damage done by Bush II. Not only are we still fighting his wars, drowning in his debt and staring at the wealth gap his tax breaks in part created, we’re bumping around in the shadows of his stubborn stances. After all, he preached a stay-the-course sermon for eight years. Stick it out. Ride it through. No compromise. No quit. No admissions of failure or miscalculation. Even when the evidence was scrawled along the weathered lines of his face, the former president stood his ground. Anything less would have been evidence of weakness, cowardice, a lack of faith. Anything less would have been unAmerican. So here we are, infected by the callous obstinacy that defined his presidency. We see it everywhere. And it’s so tiring, so exhausting, so unnecessary. When did admitting we’re wrong and making amends become a sin? When did cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face become so fashionable? When did principle become the overriding principle?

The NBA owners want the conversation to be about their entitlement to the lion’s share of the multi-billion dollar pot of money. The players want to cast themselves as mere working men looking for their fair share. I’m with neither of them. I’m the fan.

It’s taken me some time to come to this conclusion. For months I found myself reflexively siding with the players. When my good friend and sports writer Mike Tillery suggested the players start their own league and laid out an operational plan, I nodded in agreement. Shouldn’t the (mostly black) players whose labor is the lifeblood of the game make the bulk of the money? Isn’t the current system just a kind of modern-day plantation model? Aren’t the structures built to maintain and reinforce a pecking order based on privilege and access not merit? Tillery’s piece was brilliant inasmuch as it sought to remix the current arrangement to more equitably reflect the present-day realities. When sports writer Bill Simmons offered a model for his own player owned league, I started to think, okay, this could really work. When the refreshingly eclectic New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudamire suggested the players were beginning to talk about starting a new league on national television, I was totally on board. Screw the owners. Who needs ’em.

But then it dawned on me—I was no different than that unemployed GOPer supporting tax breaks for the rich without connecting their increasing share of wealth to my shrinking job prospects and pension account.

What disgusts me most about the NBA Lockout isn’t that the parties are squabbling over percentages or guarantees when everyday people are struggling and the world is in economic turmoil. It’s that no one in the room is fighting for the millions of people worldwide who pay for this damn league to run in the first place.

Let’s think about this rationally for a moment. Like the other major pro sports leagues, the NBA is a monopoly that depends on public financing, government-supported land seizures and deeply-engrained fan loyalty. Not only that, the league is able to operate independent of public oversight while extracting millions in public revenue by routinely threatening to cut the already artificially limited supply (ie. move the franchise). By almost any measure, the NBA is a corrupt oligarchic enterprise that undermines the principles of representative democracy for the benefit of a handful of a few self-serving super-rich people who’ve positioned themselves as the indispensable service providers for the many. And it is exactly the kind of closed-door decision making and profiteering that has crippled our economy and created a massive class divide.

Obviously owners and those who support the current model will argue the following:

  • Owners are taking the risk and should reap the rewards. If this was 30 or 40 years ago, I’d buy this argument. Maybe. Before cities started funding arenas and networks starting offering billion-dollar packages, and merchandising and branding took off as mega-revenue generators, owning an NBA team might’ve been a risk. But when you consider that the value of a perineal loser and money squanderer like, say, the Knicks increased by $240,000,000 between 2001 and 2010 (roughly $170,000,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars), where exactly is the risk.
  • Owners are uniquely qualified to run these businesses. Let’s put aside the awful contracts teams offered suspect players even after the league announced significant losses in 2010 for the moment. Let’s also temporarily forget that the success of small market teams like San Antonio and now Oklahoma City has exposed how poorly mismanaged most teams are. For the sake of argument let’s just focus on the characterization of pro sports as a business first and foremost. Calling the NBA purely a business is just as dishonest as calling college basketball an amateur activity. They are business ventures that derive their revenue from a web of complex emotional connections between fans, teams and players. Those connections have very little to do with the business of running a franchise. Again, look at the Knicks. Scandal after scandal, losing season after losing season, wasteful contract after wasteful contract, bad draft pick after bad draft pick, price hike after price hike, and the fans still showed up. What other “business” can fail miserably for a decade and not only remain solvent but grow by 50%? In what other business can the owner regard his most loyal customers with utter disdain and still prosper? In what other “business” is it legal to rig prices and extort city governments? Basketball is a business in so far as currency is exchanged between consenting parties. That’s it. Beyond that, the “business” of basketball thrives in spite of most owners’ ineptitude and because fans assume a sense of ownership over their teams however irrational it may be that those owners passively exploit.

So what’s the solution?

Co-operative ownership. If it sounds unrealistic that’s only because we’ve been taught that our role is spectator not decision maker. We – meaning American sports enthusiasts – resign ourselves to fantasy team ownership and fist pumping, first-person plural pronouns usages (“we” and “us”) and, of course, gambling. But never do we even dare consider another reality in which we have real influence over the teams and games around which our lives often revolve. That must change.

Imagining fan ownership simply requires a paradigm shift. The Green Bay Packers – one of the most successful franchises in the league’s history and the reigning Superbowl champ – may be the only major American professional sports team owned by its fans (and in 1960 the league’s owners voted to ban “fans” from owning another NFL team), but throughout Europe uber-popular and profitable futbol clubs are fan owned. Except in rare cases, all German football clubs are required to be majority member owned. In Spain, the two biggest brand names and most successful clubs – FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are fan owned. This in part explains the enthusiasm surrounding the sport. But it’s deeper than that.

If the NBA and NFL lockouts have shown us anything, it’s that a handful of wealthy people cannot and should not be trusted to determine the fate of industries that are so deeply intertwined with the health and well being of the commonwealth. On one hand, the leagues provide too many jobs for too many people. On the other, they demand too much public money and support to remain solvent. Take, as examples, Orlando and Memphis. Both cities took on major debt to finance new arenas or major renovations for their teams. With the current work stoppage millions in revenue they expected to earn from ticket sales and concessions to meet their debt obligations has already been lost. Now both cities are rightfully exploring law suits against the NBA.

Maybe you think the average fan is either too stupid or too emotionally invested to be trusted to make decisions. Well, tell that to the fans who’ve watched one team after another draft, sign or trade for one bum after another. Besides, the FC Barcelona model is a particularly noteworthy example of how well-developed and highly-structured the co-operative ownership model can be. The private, no-profit making club is compromised of some 170,000 members from around the world. Members are issued a 62 page booklet of statutes that outlines rights, responsibilities and organizational structure. Members pay a membership fee, annual dues and have the right to participate as members of the general assembly, the board of directors, senate, financial and disciplinary commission. Members can even run for the club’s most powerful position—president. The processes for selection or election and entirely transparent, democratic, and as the position warrants, based on merit. Each position has a limited term of service and an extensive number of duties. Checks and balances such as no-confidence voting, procedures for filing disputes, and protocols for financial auditing are woven into the statutes to ensure the stability of the club’s cooperative nature. It’s all very organized and very professional.

At its core, the co-operative model reflects the true nature of sports. Supporters of the game are the game. As it stands in America, supporters invest themselves emotionally and financially in the teams they love but can only express their disgust negatively—by boycotting. Shouldn’t there be a way for the fan’s voice to be heard positively as well, and not just as consumers in a marketplace? Isn’t sports more than just a business?

So how could the co-operative model translate to the NBA? Let’s start with how fans could buy the teams. The average cost for Los Angeles Lakers season tickets is roughly $8,000. At roughly $640,000,000, the only team more valuable is New York. Now, if 85,000 supporters chipped in a flat $8,000, the current owners could sign over ownership of the team and go on their merry way. Meanwhile, in exchange for their contribution each supporter would be awarded an equal ownership share in the team. To further protect against the undue influence of one wealthy individual, members could only buy one share of one team and those shares would be non-transferable. This sale process would be standardized by each team. Some teams would be cheaper to buy into simply because they’re not as valuable as the Lakers. The team owners that couldn’t attract enough supporters to meet their selling price would face an option: sell short and write off the loss or be placed in trusteeship until enough money can be raised. Why wouldn’t these poor owners just keep their teams, you ask? The same reason hundreds of Brooklyn residents couldn’t just keep their homes once the Nets decided to move to town.

Once all sales have been finalized, teams would ratify unique team policies and common league bylaws. (Among other things, founding members could, upon their democratic discretion, choose to sell more shares at a rate not to exceed the team’s current valuation divided by the number of current members.) Once each team’s governing body has been elected, a league-wide governing body composed of elected presidents of each team would be established. The head of the governing body would be a member of one team who must sell her ownership share (but maintain the repurchase right) for the duration of her tenure, a period that would not exceed two terms. Take that David Stern.

This is just the beginning of an idea for yet another radical change that is long overdue. I invite others to contribute their thoughts.