Lockout Lookout

For the first time ever, NBA season in jeopardy

Marbury pauses, "I mean, Jerry Seinfeld makes $225 million a year and nobody's saying nothing about that."

There is little doubt that Marbury has a thorough grasp of the free-market principles that won him a three-year, $5.67-million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996. Throughout his conversation with reporters, Marbury's hands are in constant motion as an incessant stream of young autograph seekers thrusts event programs at him to sign. In the open market, the signature he just penned is worth hundreds of dollars. But Marbury, and most other NBA stars, gives away signatures for free. Perhaps the idea of some enterprising youngster making a few bucks off his autograph isn't as troubling to him as the NBA spawning his image into millions of dollars in revenue, and then pleading poverty at the negotiating table.

Of course, the players' astronomical market value is in large measure the product of NBA commissioner David Stern's legendary marketing prowess. A profile of the commissioner posted on the NBA's official Web site highlights his instrumental role in the development of the lucrative NBA Properties, the league's marketing arm, and NBA Entertainment. The NBA, in its haste to capitalize on the players' images, may have helped create its own monster.

"People rave about David Stern's marketing genius. Well he's spent the last year doing an incredible job trashing the images of NBA players," observed a player advocate who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Beyond the debate over free-market economics, legitimate questions remain about the extent of the NBA's financial difficulties. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that the NBA has overstated its money problems.

"Basketball is profitable," Zimbalist told the Voice. "They [the NBA] don't have much to stink about." He further suggested that some teams could be doing what amounts to "cooking the books." Because so many teams own arenas and media outlets, they can channel team income into these other holdings in order to make it appear the teams are losing money.

Earlier this month, just weeks after walking out of a negotiating session with players over what Stern called "insulting" proposals, the NBA opened a flagship retail store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The NBA, Stern says in a press release, "will utilize every asset within the NBA organization to make the flagship store an exciting and unforgettable experience for customers." Occupying some 35,000 square feet, the building boasts a split-level, state-of-the-art design.

In the midst of pleading poverty to the players, a number of teams have signed coaches and other top-level management personnel to lucrative multiyear deals. In August, the Milwaukee Bucks signed new coach George Karl to a four-year, $20-million deal--42 percent more than he was getting with the Seattle Sonics, who fired him this summer. Although the average player salary for the 1997-98 season is between $2.2 and $2.6 million (just under the $3 million coaches' average), union records show at least 110 players earn less than $1 million a year. As commissioner, Stern earns a reported $8 million annually. The NBA did not respond to a request for more details on its finances or negotiating position.

The NBA's finances could get a whole lot worse if it loses the arbitration currently pending. By October 19, NBA nemesis John Feerick (he ruled against the NBA in the Sprewell arbitration) will decide if the league has to pay $800 million to a group of players who have guaranteed contracts. The players filed a grievance against the NBA in June, alleging that it could not legally withhold their pay during the lockout.

Regardless of which side prevails, the showdown's significance seems best measured not in the implausible amounts of money at issue, but in the degree to which the NBA loosens its tight-fisted grip on the notion that its players are nothing more than a product.

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