BOSTON – Talk about a miscommunication.
I said hello to former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, then asked him to share his unique perspective on the looming labor situation. He said he was encouraged and optimistic…about the NFL.
Once it was clarified that hoops was the sport in question, his tone certainly changed. Only this type of event could offer this sort of opportunity to bend this kind of ear, and the man who spent 30 years in the league and 22 as second-in-command to commissioner David Stern before his 2006 exit was as interesting as I’d hoped in assessing the situation.
To review, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and a lockout is expected thereafter. The players submitted their proposal to the owners at All-Star weekend 2010 in Dallas, and the owners never responded with a counter-offer of any kind. At All-Star weekend in Los Angeles last month, a positive tone was set at a meeting that almost didn’t happen but it still appears no progress has been made.
The owners remain highly-motivated to couple a hard salary cap with extreme salary rollbacks in implementing the kind of system overhaul that will be at the root of an eventual lockout. The players, quite predictably, aren’t too fond of Stern’s intent to cut salaries by a third. Still, it’s nothing Granik hasn’t seen before.
He was the league’s chief negotiator in the past four times a deal needed to get done, among them the 1998-99 season in which the games didn’t begin until January because of a lockout. He knows the characters involved, from Stern to most of the owners themselves to Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. He knows the issues yet no longer gets paid to solve them, which means he was able and willing to discuss them at length with NBA Confidential.
Granik, who is now the vice chairman of Galatioto Sports Partners, was a speaker for the panel dubbed “The Coming War: Sports Labor Relations.” And unfortunately for NBA fans, it continues to look as if a long labor battle will ensue.
NBA Confidential: So you said you were encouraged by the NFL’s prognosis, but how do you see the NBA labor situation and where it‘s heading?
Granik: “I think the NBA has a more difficult problem (than the NFL), because it’s harder to see where there’s an easy compromise. On a relative basis, they’re looking for greater moves by the players and I think it’s going to be more difficult. They’ve got a lot of smart people on both sides, so hopefully they’ll come to a good conclusion.”
NBA Confidential: Did you see it as progress that the players said they were willing to discuss any and all issues at All-Star weekend, including a hard cap?
Granik: “I haven’t seen that the players said that. I always felt that in bargaining you tend not to make progress in increments, even though that’s what people are always writing is, ‘Well, they didn’t make any progress.’ Well, you don’t really know that.
“Nobody really gives up anything important until it’s all done. It’s always got to all be part of a package, because nobody wants to give something unless they know where they’re going. So if you’re not in the room, and even if you are sometimes, it’s hard to know where you are. But it doesn’t take a lot of time to make a deal. And so when the parties are ready, they’ll get the deal done.”
NBA Confidential: One of the issues the NBPA is focused on is revenue sharing and whether it gets negotiated as part of the CBA or on the side by the owners and the league. The players would like to have some say in that key component. Is that a fair request?
Granik: “I don’t really think it should matter to the players (if revenue sharing is negotiated in the CBA) if you have a salary cap. I understood what (fellow panelist and Smith College economics professor) Andy Zimbalist was saying about baseball, that because there’s no salary cap situation it’s very relevant to the players as to how the revenues are being distributed because they want all the teams to at least get to a certain level.
“But in the leagues that have salary caps, there’s already a minimum team salary, so whatever happens the players get 57 percent (of basketball-related income). At the end of the day, players get 57 percent. That’s how it works. And so, revenue sharing is not going to change that. It might affect who gets it, but it’s not going to affect what the players get. So I think there ought to be less concern when you’ve got a salary cap system on the part of the players about how the owners share revenue. You know you’re going to get your cut. Baseball is different.”
NBA Confidential: There has been some planning for possible decertification of the players union (read here to learn more). Do you see that as a real possibility?
Granik: “I think there’s just a lot of litigation that could be done over that. I think the biggest concern I would have on both sides is once you’re down that road, it just distracts from the more important issue of making the deal, because the litigation is going to take longer than it’s going to take to get a deal in any event.
“I understand it can affect leverage back and forth over time, but the reality is that when you’re in that, there’s going to be some period of weeks or months where the focus won’t be anymore on making a deal and that’s unfortunate. But the players have to do what they think is the best strategy and the owners will do the same.”
NBA Confidential: Do you think Billy’s personal story comes into play at all here? There are some people who feel like this is probably his last negotiations and that he’ll be even more stubborn than usual to not get run over by the owners in his last stand.
Granik: Well people said last time it was David’s last negotiations, so who knows? Billy’s not that old (he’s 68). I think Billy is a very practical leader. I don’t think the personal issue will play a big role for him. I think he’s going to do what he feels he should do for his clients and what his clients want him to do. That’s got to be the prime motivation as far as I’m concerned.