The deadline set by the NBA itself for reaching an agreement came and went on Friday and was pushed back a week as players began to worry about the possibility of a start date on December 22nd and an angle for an opening on January 18th. Much of the same dynamics that were at play during the bubble talks remain, but the stakes are much higher and both sides feel more pressure this time around.
The bubble came together as the novel coronavirus pandemic made it clear to players and owners that they needed each other to lessen the blow to their paperbacks. They need each other now more than ever.
Keep in mind that the NBA was roughly three-quarters in the 2019-20 regular season before the pandemic outbreak, meaning it had already booked five months of matchday-related revenue. Compare this to the season ahead, when fans may not be able to return to the arenas at all. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview last Thursday that sporting events may not return to normal until the fourth quarter of 2021, as new coronavirus cases hit record highs in recent weeks.
The bladder was found to be extraordinarily effective in limiting the damage caused by coronavirus over the 2019-20 period. ESPN.com reported that, despite the four-month hiatus, the NBA’s total revenue fell just 10 percent last season while the bubble generated $ 1.5 billion at a cost of less than $ 200 million.
But the bubble was a short-term bridging solution that was undertaken in the hope that the country would get back on track in the fight against the virus in the fall. Instead, the situation has worsened as 98,270 cases were reported Friday and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows recently recognized that “we will not control the pandemic”.
As Fauci warned that the country will “take a lot of damage” over the upcoming holiday season due to the coronavirus, it’s also the next season of the NBA. A complete absence of fans and the need to play a shortened 72-game schedule to realign the NBA’s typical calendar would cost the league approximately $ 4 billion in revenue for the next season. This is a huge achievement for a league with $ 8 billion in annual sales – much bigger than the hole the bubble is filling – and one that would require a sharp drop in future salary caps and individual player salaries.
Both teams hope the league can get back to normal for the 2021-22 season, but they cannot rely on it. Michele Roberts, NBPA executive director, said in August that the players knew they were “going to have at least one season that will be challenging”. Don’t skip the “At least”.
Even if the NBA returned to their typical 2021-22 schedule, fans might not be returning to the arenas for some or all of the season. This scenario would extend the 40 percent drop in sales that occurs without fans to a third season.
Additionally, it’s not clear whether the NBA will be able to sell as much goods or get their typical TV ratings as the pandemic drags on and potentially negatively impacts the economy. Playing outside of a bubble also increases the possibility of positive coronavirus tests, which could result in postponed or abandoned games, long-term absences of affected players, and other contingencies that could affect the league’s financial picture.
The scale of the NBA’s economic crisis is massive, but it is the best reason to believe that both sides will find a solution without a real labor war. The owners and players are being cornered together and must do whatever it takes to maximize revenue this season, keep their television partners happy, and make up as much ground as possible before the NBA’s television and media rights deals in the year End in 2025. If that’s the focus it’s hard to justify missing the storefront on Christmas Day, delaying the 2021 playoffs for any reason, or postponing the start of the 2021-22 season.
In a more typical negotiation, it would be natural for the players to resent the owners who asked them to return to training camp in early December after the finals ended in mid-October. And it would be natural for the owners to counter by saying the players should only care because they didn’t play a full 82 game schedule last year, they won’t do it again next year and they had unexpected ones break four months in between.
However, this is not a typical negotiation. Owners cannot easily threaten to play substitutes during a season that is already going to be so unusual. Players cannot easily threaten to hold out at a time of such financial peril. With TV ratings plummeting and the American public grappling with more immediate concerns, a basketball labor war would be hit with crickets and disgust.
Indeed, both owners and players are lacking meaningful leverage as the relentless pandemic is all cards.