Six weary figures rose from their chairs early Saturday, their expressions telegraphing the conclusion to the NBA's five-month labour crisis: Basketball is back in business, with a new labour deal that heavily favours the owners, despite some last-minute concessions.
The league wanted an overhaul of its $4-billion-a-year (all currency U.S.) enterprise, and it got it, with a nearly $300-million annual reduction in player salaries and a matrix of new restrictions on contracts and team payrolls. The changes mean a $3-billion gain for the owners over the life of the 10-year deal.
Before finally agreeing to those sacrifices, the players' negotiators won a handful of concessions that will allow the richest teams to keep spending on players, ensuring a more competitive free-agent market.
A truncated 66-game schedule will begin on Christmas Day with three nationally televised games. For that, officials on both sides were grateful as they announced a resolution at 3:40 a.m. Eastern, on the 149th day of the lockout, after a final 15-hour bargaining session at law offices in midtown Manhattan.
"We look forward to opening on Christmas Day," Adam Silver, the NBA's deputy commissioner, said during the brief news conference. "We're excited to bring NBA basketball back. That's most important."
The new agreement calls for a 50-50 split of basketball-related revenues between the owners and the players, about $2-billion for each side in current terms. There is a possibility that the players can make as much as 51 per cent or as little as 49, depending on whether the league exceeds or falls short of projections. The players had been earning 57 per cent.
The loss of 16 regular-season games and the preseason cost the owners and players about $400-million each. The parties had already resolved the biggest issues, including the $300-million salary reduction, weeks ago, but were hung up on fairly minor details, mostly rules restricting the top-spending teams from adding players. With a 66-game schedule in reach, everyone finally resolved that those items were not worth sacrificing a season and alienating fans and sponsors. The normal NBA regular season is 82 games.
"It's great to be a part of this particular moment, in terms of giving our fans what it is that they so badly wanted and want to see," said Derek Fisher, president of the players' union. Fisher did not smile as he said it, appearing more relieved than happy.
Billy Hunter, the long-time head of the players' union, sat stoically next to him. No one on the players' side praised the agreement.
League officials achieved their two broadest goals: reduced costs and a system that evens the playing field between the richest and poorest teams. The reduction in player salaries should offset the NBA's reported $300-million in annual losses, and provide total savings of about $3-billion over the 10-year agreement. Each side has an option to terminate the deal after six years. In addition to the significant pay cut for players, the deal includes shorter contracts, smaller raises and a more punitive tax system to rein in the top-spending teams.
"I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agency market in a way that they have been able to in the past," Silver said. "We feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships."
Training camps will open Dec. 9. Unsigned players will be permitted to sign new contracts that day, setting up a chaotic two-week mad dash toward the 2011-12 season.
The schedule will be reconstructed and released in the coming days. The season will begin eight weeks later than originally scheduled, requiring some major contortions and stress for everyone involved. The regular season will be extended into late April, pushing back the playoffs and the final by a week. To fit 66 games, teams will have to play, on average, about two more games a month.
The deal needs ratification by a simple majority of the 30 teams and a simple majority of the 430-plus players. Before that can happen, the parties must dispense with two pending lawsuits, and the players must reconstitute their union. It could be at least a week before the players are ready to vote.