Listen, I understand the last week COVID-19 has been running roughshod over the NBA with it feels like the reckless abandon of a Russell Westbrook drive. Yet, I’m here to tell you this season isn’t going anywhere.
The reason for this is the reason for just about everything else in life, money.
Last season, the pandemic cost the league an estimated $1.5 billion between lost games and the lack of in-arena fees missed in a bubble playoffs without fans. With another it seems mostly fanless season on the horizon, the league was put in an extremely difficult situation.
They decided to come back so quickly from those bubble playoffs because, of two main reasons associated with league revenue that essentially answered their difficult situation for them.
- Thanks to each team’s local TV deal being in and around 72-76 games, the number of games was set because the league can’t really afford to have to pay back the costs of missing games from previously signed contracts. Think of it this way, the contracts are signed with a pre-determined set of games and already paid, so if the league misses any of those, the teams will in effect owe their local broadcasting partners money.
- The NBA has by all reports essentially concluded that they need to have a normal 2021-22 season (82 games, full arenas etc.) to not financially crater the league. So, to fit in the 72 games they needed and to still maintain the normal schedule of a realistic lengthed offseason, 82 games, Finals done in June etc., they had to start late December even if rest-wise after the bubble it made little sense.
“But Will, the team’s are owned by billionaires, who cares if they owe some money.”
Firstly, if there’s one thing billionaires hate more than taxes (I had to), it’s paying money for something unnecessary. To them, taking a massive loss and let’s say forgoing an NBA season is probably survivable but would legitimately decimate their bank accounts thanks to the way the NBA is structured.
How it’s structured is the players and owners split what is called Basketball Related Income (BRI). This income is how we get player contracts which is the other half of the heart of why cancellation won’t happen.
The contracts are guaranteed as many know in this league. So when Steph Curry signed his extension a few summers ago for five years and $201,158,790, every cent was guaranteed to him. Here’s the issue in the COVID world and why Adam Silver said the league isn’t built to sustain no fans.
With BRI nose-diving without fans in the stands, the league still owes these players their contracts regardless of what money is or isn’t coming in. So you may wonder, could the players just sit out and still get paid, cancelling the season on their own?
The short answer to this is not really. Because if they were to say not complete their end of the contract and play basketball, the owners have clauses that can in essence end the contracts.
Basically, both sides are hamstrung.
The owners can’t afford to not play games and owe a litany of groups money like their broadcasters for example while still paying their players and not bringing in any revenue. Meanwhile, the players, even if they were to agree that this isn’t safe, still live lives where they want their salaries and in many cases need them.
With both sides screwed, that’s how you get an NBA season starting too quickly after the last one with a series of COVID rules that hardly make sense because they didn’t have the time to properly figure this out. Now, they’re three weeks in, a full outbreak is consuming multiple teams and all they can really do is meet and adjust the policies on the fly.
With so much money at stake for both sides, it doesn’t really matter if they logically should or shouldn’t be playing. At the end of the day, money is going to make these choices for them.
Look at the NFL and MLB for example who both didn’t use bubbles. The NFL had an outbreak with a team so bad in the Tennessee Titans, multiple teams’ schedules had to be redone. They pushed through though and found a way, amid media pressure to give up on the season.
Baseball felt that same pressure with the Marlins debacle and I assure you, the NBA in the next few days will feel it too.
As I’ve said though, those criticisms aren’t looking at the realistic picture of what this is. They aren’t playing basketball right now for any reason other than the fact the league’s entire financial system is on the precipice of collapse and the only saving grace is a normal 2021-22 season that can hopefully repay some bills.
Otherwise, if they were to say postpone for a week or two or even cancel the season, literally every piece of the financial agreement that makes up the NBA would have to be reworked. The loser would be firstly the fans and secondly the players because let’s all be honest here, billionaires always win.
I’m not going to give you my take on if the season should or shouldn’t happen because that’s irrelevant, as are the opinions of everyone who is acting like a cancellation is a real option. This league needs to play this season whether we like it or not under the guise of their rules and who am I or anyone else to question that?
The players know what they signed up for when they agreed to come back and if they want to choose their health against COVID over playing and receiving a salary, more the power to them. For the rest of us though, we need to look at this with realistic big boy pants and recognize what this is.
It’s a business trying to fight its way through a pandemic and guess what? Fighting through a pandemic is really damn hard.