Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo Credit: Bill Moore photo

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is a master of strategic communication. He has followed the paradigm exquisitely crafted by his predecessor David Stern, who brilliantly spearheaded the growth of the league into a global sports behemoth, of controlling the narrative of critical issues. As the CEOs of NBA franchises and the NBA Players’ Association face impending negotiations on a new labor agreement, load management (a term to describe players sitting out games to rest and recover) will be a key subject of discussion as it could affect the league’s next media rights deal. The league’s existing seven-year collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2023-24 season, but both the CEOs of the 30 teams and the players union can opt out of the agreement before then.

“This isn’t a new issue,” said Silver of load management on a Saturday meeting with media at All-Star Weekend in Utah. Sliver was the NBA’s deputy commissioner before succeeding Stern in February 2014. Stern, who passed away in January of 2020, stepped down as commissioner in January 2014 after 30 years in the position.  

“I understand it from a fan standpoint that if you are…buying tickets to a particular game and that player isn’t playing,” he continued. “…There’s a marketplace of fans who at the end of the day are the ultimate adjudicators of whether this is a product worth watching and paying for. Right now, they’re telling us that they love the NBA, and they’re attending and watching it at record levels.”

Multiple reports have the NBA seeking a $75 billion multi-year package from broadcast and streaming partners which would increase the Association’s salary cap and thus the value of players’ contracts. For instance, the annual amount of supermax contracts would increase exponentially and potentially pay players eligible for extensions in the coming years, such as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounpo roughly $70 million per season. The NBA’s current pact with ESPN and Turner Sports, a nine-year extension of their previous agreement, which began at the start of the 2016-17 season and runs through the 2024-25 season, pays the league $24 billion.

It’s a certainty that ESPN (owned by Disney, Turner, and others bidding to broadcast and stream NBA content worldwide expect the league to consistently present its most appealing product, which entails the stars appearing in a high percentage of their games.

Significantly reducing the number of regular season games from the current 82—the league played 72 in 2020-21 still adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic—and paying players based on the number of games they play have been suggested to address load management.

One or both could lead to deadlocked negotiations and a potential work stoppage that neither side wants to relive. Commissioner Stern locked out the players in 2011 and it lasted 161 days from July 1 to December 8, consequently cutting the number of regular season games to 66. NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio, who assumed the role last year after former executive director Michelle Roberts retired from the position following an impactful six-year tenure, rightly noted on Saturday while attending All-Star

Weekend that a work stoppage would be harmful to both sides.

“First of all, I don’t think a lockout benefits anyone,” noted Tremaglio. “I also think it’s important that we all recognize to some extent our players stated from the very beginning that they were fine with having the contract continued through the 2023-24 season.”
The prudent stance articulated by Tremaglio doesn’t lessen the gravity or reality of the delicate points of concern that must be navigated.

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