2011 has been defined by labor issues in this country. First, the collective bargaining fight in Wisconsin between the state legislature and governor made headlines. Professional sports are not immune to the issues within the broader country.
In many respects, professional sports provide a micro-view into the broader country. The NFL lockout was framed as millionaires vs. billionaires. While not accurate, that frame helped the players because the NFL was not losing money.
In fact, it was gaining money. The battle was over splitting the $9 billion worth of revenue.
The NFL players union did a better job from a PR stand point. They demonstrated the value each franchise has to the city they play in. The NFL players attached the importance of the sport to the American need for leisure and escape.
Ray Lewis did this awkwardly in a recent ESPN interview, but the meaning should not be lost when he said: "Do this research if we don't have a season—watch how much evil, which we call crime, how much crime picks up, if you take away our game. There's nothing else to do."
While his comments were over the line, the players did a great job in connecting the game to the lives of everyday people.
From a PR standpoint, the NBA has failed to do so.
The talk in the NBA has recently been about NBA players like Kobe Bryant looking to take their talents overseas. This action hurts the idea of an NBA players union.
The NFL players held together in solidarity. Going into the lockout, NFL players were encouraged to save money for the possibility of a longer lockout.
This preparation has not happened in the NBA or it has been poorly advertised. While the NFL was battling over splitting the $9 billion, the NBA is fighting over cuts due to lost revenue for most teams.
Comparing the two lockouts is like comparing opposite sides of completely different coins. The NBA lockout will be made worse because the NBA is losing the PR battle. More to the point, they lost the battle for the hearts and minds of middle America.
The vision of NBA players exercising their options in Europe will not help with the average fan.
Flooding the European league with NBA players may create unintended consequences. The values of mid-level players will become inflated if the season is locked out and the NBA will be revisiting the problem of lost revenue for NBA teams as these teams look to pay market value for these players.
More importantly, the European option hurts the NBA players union bargaining position, as the European teams will pay less than the NBA.
Expect a lost season because (1) the players lack leverage with the European option, (2) the NBA fan base cannot bring the same pressure to bear as the NFL fan base and (3) the NBA players never created the value to strengthen their position at the bargaining table.
The NBA lockout can be summed up as "every man for himself."