Miller: Occupy the NBA
By Zack Miller, Contributing Columnist
Published on Monday, February 6, 2012
The National Basketball Association is heading for trouble and, structurally, it’s the same kind of trouble our nation is in today. The NBA is facing a growing talent and revenue disparity problem similar to the income disparity problem that Occupy Wall Street and its unwashed, overeducated cousin, Occupy Dartmouth have identified.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m hyped that the season has belatedly kicked off. But amidst the blockbuster trades and the establishment of Lob City, a disturbing trend has gone unnoticed: Talent and revenues in the NBA are flowing upstream. Just as the top 1 percent of our nation has acquired an increasingly outsized share of our national wealth, an elite minority of big-market NBA owners are acquiring the lion’s share of the NBA’s superstars and profits. Last year, 22 NBA teams lost a combined $450 million, while the other eight teams saw consolidated profits of approximately $150 million. The gap between NBA’s haves and have-nots is widening, just like the gap between America’s rich and poor.
Los Angeles, Miami and New York all have large populations with wealthy, loyal fan bases, and thus their owners enjoy uniquely robust markets to which they can sell their product — basketball. Over the past few years, these teams have seen an influx of money and big-name talent, as players wisely decide that big cities are the best places to grow their personal brands and build championship teams.
Big-market bullying began with the L.A. Lakers trading with the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol in 2008, but it truly emerged with the corporatized formation of the Miami Heat, who agreed to pay $50 million a year to bring Lebron James and Chris Bosh down to South Beach, Fla. to play with Dwyane Wade. Next, New York committed about $40 million a year to bring in perennial all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. This summer, it was not the Lakers, but the Clippers — the other beneficiaries of the Los Angeles market — who landed the NBA’s premier floor general, Chris Paul, to pair with the electrifying Blake Griffin.
Of course, there will always be other good teams in the NBA — just look at some of the recent champions. But, barring a few anomalies like the Oklahoma City Thunder, most of these other elite squads come from sizable markets.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of NBA owners are sliding down a dangerous path, paved with financial losses and the memories of departed superstars. Bleeding talent and revenues, these owners are rightly frustrated; they are the losers in an unfair arrangement.
So maybe it’s not so ridiculous to compare a bunch of rich, old white guys, themselves members of the 1 percent, to the Occupy protestors. Both groups are being deprived of profits by factors beyond their control, disadvantaged by systems that privilege a select minority over the large majority. So who is to blame? Occupy and the NBA would do well to recall the wise words of Gandhi: “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” Occupy has wrong-headedly blamed the players in our financial system — the bankers on Wall Street — for socio-economic inequity. This is as silly as blaming NBA players for wanting to take big contracts and win titles in big cities. And yet, this summer, the NBA owners did just that, locking out the players and demanding that they take salary cuts.
Occupy’s finger of blame should be pointed at Capitol Hill, or more precisely, at that gilded corner where banks and corporations intersect with government. This country’s current problems are not rooted in too much regulation, but too little. Capitalism is a powerful but dangerous beast. It is the reason for the U.S.’s international preeminence, but it must be tempered with regulation. Instead of whining about the bankers, Occupy should take their fight to an institution actually designed to respond to public opinion and demand a repeal of the Bush tax cuts and encourage serious limits on how much corporations and banks can donate to politicians.
I am less optimistic about what small-market NBA owners can do to remedy their own unfair situation. The NBA has agreed to increase revenue sharing between profitable big-market teams and struggling small market teams, but not enough to achieve parity or even pseudo-equality.
The shot clock is running out. Occupy and the NBA are getting hacked, but no one’s calling the fouls. We need some new referees.