Sources: NBA, refs far from deal

The NBA's current contract with its 60-odd referees runs out next week and the sides appear to be far apart on a new deal, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

Sept. 1 is the expiration date of the current five-year pact. One source told ESPN.com on Tuesday that -- with the league proposing an across-the-board reduction to the referee budget of an estimated 10 percent -- the impasse might not be resolved before the start the 2009-10 season.

As of "right now," according to the source, existing NBA referees "will not be working preseason [or the] regular season."

Another source with knowledge of the talks, however, countered by questioning the referees' willingness to hold out in a depressed economy if it reaches the point that the league threatens to impose a lockout.

The source added that one motivation for the NBA digging in could be demonstrating the hard-line approach that some owners favor in collective-bargaining talks with NBA players that began earlier this month. The NBA's labor pact with its players expires after the 2010-11 season, but the sides have opened negotiations much earlier than normal in a bow to an economic climate that has prompted numerous teams to curtail spending.

"Negotiations are ongoing," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Tuesday of the league's talks with its referees. "We do not plan to comment during
the negotiations."

Lamell McMorris, spokesman for the referees' union, declined comment Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear what sort of contingency plans would be triggered if the league and the officials can't strike a deal in time for the start of the exhibition season in October.

Aspiring NBA officials were observed and trained as normal by veteran refs during summer league play in July in Orlando and Las Vegas, but the league's annual training camp for its veterans -- typically held during the third week in September -- appears to be in jeopardy with no agreement in place.

The proposed cuts to the referee budget are believed to include reductions in travel costs, pension payouts and health benefits in addition to salary cuts.

Sources say that the referees have argued against the sort of budget cuts widely imposed on team and league office staff members by insisting the late hours they work and difficult travel conditions they endure in addition to the injury risks they're subjected to make them unlike any other group of NBA employees.

Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.