Professors: Fans Disillusioned With Pro Athletes' Salaries
On Jan. 6, the players and team owners of the National Basketball Association (NBA) finally reached an agreement to end what had been by far the longest labor dispute in league history.
The deal arrived not a moment too soon: the owners were about to vote on canceling the entire season.
Buried in books at the beginning of reading period, Harvard students may not even have noticed that the NBA wasn't playing, but some professors here have strong opinions on the subject. There is even a history class on professional athletics.
The professors say public reaction to the NBA lockout shows that fans are disillusioned with the salaries earned by basketball stars and are not as interested in the game.
Some professors say the labor dispute may have been cut short because players were concerned by all their once-loyal fans calling them greedy and spoiled.
"There was no public clamor to play," says Professor of History William E. Gienapp, who teaches History 1653, "Baseball and American Society, 1840-Present." "The other sports, particularly baseball, could learn a lesson from that. The close emotional attachment that once linked fans to players no longer exists, and fans have become increasingly hostile to players' demands."
The last-minute deal followed a six-month labor war that alienated fan and marketing support for the NBA and saw a loss of $400 million in player salaries and even more in total league revenue.
With games going unplayed for months, ticket sales and television advertisement revenues waned--meaning the NBA had to refund money to the affected networks.
The central disagreement between the players and the owners was how to divide the $2 billion the NBA rakes in every year.
Now that the basketball lockout is over, a shortened regular season of about 50 games (compared with the usual 82) will begin next month and the playoff series will proceed normally
Michael Wheeler, professor of management at Harvard Business School, says the strike went on for so long because the teams and players are so wealthy.
"Paradoxically, when there's so much at stake it is easier for both sides to drag things out," he says. "Both teams and players could afford to play hardball."
Wheeler calls the phenomenon an "embarrassment of riches." He also points out the difference between basketball and an industry with international competitors. In the latter case, market pressures would have forced the warring sides to patch things up sooner.
Wheeler says another explanation for the conflict's protracted length is that "neither side was monolithic."
The players are divided between the wealthy superstars and those lower on the totem pole, while the teams are divided between the cash cows and organizations struggling in smaller markets, he says. Such divisions made an already complex struggle all the more difficult.
"There is no `fair' distribution between the two parties," says Professor of Sociology Aage B. Sorensen, who teaches Social Analysis 38: "Social Stratification."
When the settlement was finally reached, both sides were forced to make concessions. The league achieved its goal of limiting the amount players are paid. As a result, basketball is the only professional sport to have a salary cap for an individual player.
But the players--who previously made an average of $2.6 million, the highest of any pro-sport--will still receive 55 percent of league revenue. They also managed to raise the income of players with mid-range salaries.
Under the terms of the six-season agreement, players who have been in the league for more than 10 years can make no more than $14 million in the first year of their contracts. The ceiling drops to $11 million for players with fewer than 10 years experience and $9 million for players with under six years of experience.
However, any player may renew a contract with his current team at 105 percent of his previous salary--meaning that Michael Jordan could still make $34.7 million a year were he not stepping down from his throne as king of basketball.
Still, the players gave a lot of ground. Like Gienapp, Wheeler says the athletes were forced to make so many concessions because they "realized they had lost their following."
He adds that the lockout will have a negative effect on the NBA and all professional sports.
"You can sell hoopla only so much," he says. "The game has to be something regarded as special. It looses mystique when the players and owners seem so concerned with their personal wealth."
According to the professors, the fans' negative reaction to the NBA lockout may in part be backlash to the sky-rocketing salaries all professional sport players have received of late.
Wheeler says the high salaries arrived with the advent of televised sports, when "athletics became entertainment."
Lucrative TV network contracts give professional sports leagues a large portion of their income, but networks will not be willing to pay so much if the fans do not want to watch.
Gienapp says the key to keeping fans interested is "competitive balance" between the various teams across the country.
"The sport that has done the best job of promoting competition is football," he says. "The worst is baseball, where two-thirds of the teams have no chance at all, and where the same handful of teams dominate post-season play year after year."
Strong competition may bring most fans back to the NBA. Nevertheless, the professors say the lockout was a losing proposition for both players and owners.
And--as Wheeler points out--the off-court personnel whose livelihoods depend upon basketball lost a lot, too.
"The people who sell the hot dogs at the games, for example...those people could not afford the lockout while the players and owners easily could," he says.
But despite the negative outcome of the last six months, do the professors think the players and owners of the NBA learned their lesson?
"Of course not," says Wheeler, who believes the lockout was caused by greed. "It's hard to see what's changed or who will be chastened by this experience."