Stern's sick game

Is it possible that David Stern’s flu saved the NBA season?

I keep wondering why there finally seems to be progress in the NBA labor negotiations this week, after the deadline to starting the season on time and marathon labor negotiations with a federal mediator weren’t enough to get ‘er done in the past.

I can only conclude that Stern’s sick days last week are responsible. It’s not that Stern’s presence in the room was an impediment to negotiations – we’ve heard the union take exception to statements made by Spurs owner Peter Holt and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert more than anything said by Stern during the collective bargaining. It was Stern’s absence from the news conference last week that was a setback for the owners and changed the way this game is viewed.

Before Oct. 20, the consensus was that the NBA was winning the p.r. battle. Part of it was sheer volume, with Stern chatting up every media outlet except public access TV in his day-and-a-half media blitz during a break in talks. Mostly it was due to Stern’s savvy, knowing just which key phrases to use to make it seem as if the players were the ones keeping the season from starting.

It’s not that deputy commissioner Adam Silver is new at this. He’s been at Stern’s side for the major news conferences over the past year, and Stern has often deferred to Silver on some of the thornier questions. But Stern’s always the one who delivers the juicier sound bites. His words still carry more weight, and everyone knows it.

So when Silver and Holt stepped to the microphone after talks broke off last Thursday, the league’s side was starting with a deficit. It didn’t help that the union got the last at-bat, and President Derek Fisher and Executive Director Billy Hunter swung away like never before, with Fisher accusing Silver and Holt of lying to the media in the room. Without Stern around to win the spin battle, the owners took a hit.

Suddenly the tenor of the lockout coverage changed. Writers such as Ken Berger of CBSSports.com and Sam Amick of SI.com, who had been playing it down the middle until that point, felt compelled to blame the owners. In an instant poll I conducted during ESPN.com’s chat marathon Monday, 75 percent of the responders blamed the owners for the lockout.

Why does the public opinion matter? Because when the lockout ends it’s the owners who have to actually go out and sell tickets. It’s them, not the players, who directly ask the fans for money. If they come off as the bad guys it makes it a lot tougher for people to invest in them.

Maybe they realized it’s time to merely quit while they’re ahead. And they’ve always been ahead. As union economist Ken Murphy told NBA.com “Had [the owners] gotten their initial offer, that would have been the most one-sided deal in the history of sports negotiations.”

It’s been garbage time for a while now, and the union is merely chipping a few points away from the owners’ insurmountable lead. If the owners simply took the players’ latest offer of 52.5% of the BRI and allowed everything else to revert to the old collective bargaining agreement it would still result in more than $1 billion shifting to the owners’ side over the course of the new deal. They’ll get even more, of course. They don’t need to talk about BRI split right now. The last time they did, the players showed a willingness to go down as low as 50 percent in worst-case economic scenarios. They will move closer to 50-50. Both sides know it. It’s just a matter of how much more movement on the “system issues” (luxury tax, exceptions, etc.) the players can extract from the owners before they play their final hand. There still needs to be agreement among the owners before a deal can be finalized, with a source saying that issues over how luxury tax-paying and non-luxury tax teams are treated is a hangup.

"I think we won't turn to the split until we're done with the system," Stern told reporters early Thursday morning.

That’s a dramatic change from last week, when the owners demanded a 50-50 split before they talked about anything else. Now they’re talking system first, then change? That’s a shift to the players’ perspective. That’s the difference after Stern sat out sick.