Money Can’t Buy Happiness: New TV Deal has Planted Seeds for Labor Unrest in NBA

Michele Roberts

Photo Credit: www.theledgesports.com

By: Matt Weiss

December 1, 2014

In early October, the New York Times reported that the National Basketball Association (NBA) had agreed with The Walt Disney Company and Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. on a new TV deal that would pay the league $24 billion over 9 years to keep the association’s games on ESPN, ABC, and TNT.[1] The deal does not take effect until the 2016-17 season, but the increase in annual payments under this new deal as compared to the one currently in place (almost $2 billion per year [2]) has sparked labor unrest.

In 2011, the NBA owners and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) agreed to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that governs today’s NBA. Each side will be given the opportunity to opt out of the 2011 CBA before the 2017-18 season, and therein lies the rub: the new TV deal kicks in a year before the players and owners can renegotiate their labor agreement. Unsurprisingly, the 2011 CBA was not drafted with an extra $2 billion in revenue in the final year of the deal in mind, and therefore the salary cap is currently expected to increase by an unprecedented $14 million between 2015-16 and 2016-17. [3] NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA owners are reportedly interested in artificially spreading out the increase in revenue over the next few seasons as a way to combat this substantial jump[4], but Michele Roberts, director of the NBPA, seems uninterested in deflating future salaries.

“I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because. It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it,” Roberts told ESPN.[5] “You can call it a ‘spike,’ but it’s also just an accurate reflection of what the revenue is,” she said on the specific idea of smoothing out the effects of the new TV deal in advance.[6] Further, Roberts feels as though owners should be more grateful for the players, as owners are expendable while players are not. “Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. [If the players] go . . .[t]he game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”[7] Roberts also voiced complaints about wage scales for rookies as well as the age limit, which requires prospective NBA players to wait one year after graduating high school before entering the league.[8]

Adam Silver seemed none too pleased by these comments: “The NBA’s success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players. No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or ‘un-American’ in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employees — in fact, that’s the norm.”[9]

Based on her statements, Roberts and the NBPA are nonplussed by the idea that the NBA would attempt to place a ceiling on player salary increases in a league climate defined by unmitigated success. If the league is successful in its attempts to slowly increase salaries as opposed to allowing for the large jump that would occur otherwise, players may lose out on money they deserve while owners will feel no such ill-effects. Even though the CBA cannot be renegotiated for almost three years, the players do have the ability to go on strike at any time. There has not been a strike in one of the four major American sports since baseball players went on strike in 1994, but with Roberts implying that the NBPA feels oppressed by the owners and Silver seemingly unwilling to back down from his stance, there is a chance that will change soon. Money can buy many things, but it cannot buy labor peace.


[1] Richard Sandomir, N.B.A. is Said to Continue Network Deals, The New York Times (October 5, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/06/sports/basketball/nba-said-to-be-near-new-tv-deal-for-24-billion.html?ref=basketball&_r=0.
[2] Zach Lowe, How the NBA’s New TV Deal Could Blow Up the Salary Cap, Grantland (October 6, 2014), http://grantland.com/the-triangle/nbas-new-tv-deal-blow-up-the-salary-cap/.
[3] Id.  The NBA’s salary cap is calculated each year “based on projected amounts [of] Basketball related Income . . . and benefits for the upcoming season.” Larry Coon, Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ, http://www.cbafaq.com/salarycap.htm#Q13, (last updated July 9, 2014).
[4] Id.
[5] Pablo S. Torre, NBPA Director: Let’s Stop Pretending, ESPN NBA (November 13, 2014, 2:06 PM), http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/11868612/nba-owners-expendable-players-union-chief-michele-roberts-says.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.