Lockouts Impact Sports World Economically, Alter Fandom


Author: Jack McHenry


In technical terms of labor negotiations, a lockout occurs when an employer prevents employees from working. When organized labor movements developed and strategies like collective bargaining and strikes came into being to impose their will on employers and oppose lockout tactics, few members of this movement imagined that their tactics would be used by professional athletes, who are paid with multimillion dollar contracts.

Over the course of the last two decades, however, lockouts and serious labor disputes have occurred in three major North American sports. In addition to the current lockout, the NBA had a lockout for part of the 1998-1999 season, as well as during the summer of 1995. The NFL underwent a lockout during this past summer that cut short the preseason and training camps and threatened to shorten the season. The NHL had a lockout in 1994-1995, and during the lockout of the 2004-2005 season became the only major professional sports league in North America to forgo a whole season.

Understanding these events historically is critical because lockouts have the power to transform the sport they occur in and are often accompanied by actual rule changes to the game itself as well as to the business practices of the industry. As the current NBA lockout presses on with no end in sight, a historical understanding of recent lockouts can offer reasonable expectations for the near future of the NBA.

The last major labor negotiations for the NBA occurred in 2005 when the players union organized a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was valid for six years. When that CBA expired earlier this year, negotiations began that gave way to the current lockout.

However, the 1998-1999 lockout proved to be the last serious labor dispute in the NBA, which lasted for 204 days (for comparison’s sake the current lockout has lasted right around 130 with no end in sight) and saw 32 regular season games cancelled.

When the lockout ended, changes had been made that included a salary cap for players. Publicly, the league suffered attendance and general popularity drops as the lockout was viewed as a petty squabble between millionaire players and owners.

Though basketball and hockey are two very different sports, the NHL lockout during the 2004-2005 season is proving to be an increasingly accurate parallel to the current NBA negotiations. The entire 2004-2005 NHL season was cancelled due to the lockout, and with each passing day this appears to be the path the NBA is headed down.

The NHL players association and NHL owners and management were unable to reach an agreement on revenue sharing and salary cap, which ultimately resulted in a 310-day lockout. Though the terms of agreement for resolution to the lockout were significantly lower than original propositions by the players association in terms of salary cap, the new collective bargaining agreement garnered an 87 percent approval vote from the players association, perhaps reflecting the eventual willingness of the players returning to play the game.

The league implemented revenue sharing programs where the top 10 earning teams share with the bottom 15, helping to create league-wide parody. Such programs were implemented in the NFL, which is praised for its high level of mockery relative to the other professional sports.

Indeed, since the 2004-2005 lockout, though it deprived players and fans of an entire season, the league has been commended for making the necessary reforms to enhance the league.

The NBA players association is currently in a deadlock, as the first two weeks of the season have been cancelled and the general buzz is that the whole season is soon to follow.

Owners are arguing for a greater share of revenue, citing teams losing money as their main evidence, while players maintain that they deserve more than 50 percent of the revenue as they are the labor and ultimately the reason why anyone cares about the NBA.

Players say that if they relinquish for 50/50 revenue sharing now, who is to say that when the next collective bargaining agreement rolls around, they won’t be forced down to 45 percent or even 40 percent revenue sharing.

With both parties unwilling to give any ground, it is difficult to say when a resolution will be reached.

As fans across the nation hope for a miraculous compromise that would save the season, one would hope that the millionaires on either side of the negotiations can find a reasonable solution and return to the game that so many love.

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