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.

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