As the uncertainty grows, and science, economic and competitive elements collide, there’s one constant in the struggle to revive the NBA: Owners and players are delivering Adam Silver full room to operate, govern and make the decision on resuming play amid a pandemic. No power grabs, no factions, no public criticisms on the commissioner’s judgment.
In a league of wildly rich, successful, powerful and, yes, egomaniacal characters, no one has tried to usurp Silver’s voice in this coronavirus crisis. These billionaires and global icons left the shutdown to the commissioner, and together, they’re leaving the resumption and reshaping of a different NBA to him too.
“Don’t underestimate your power to set the public perception,” one owner told Silver on the board of governors call this week.
Because the league office was warning and preparing owners and teams weeks before The White House, Silver earned an extra level of credibility on these issues of the virus. Silver doesn’t underestimate the power of something else to set public perception of his league — his superstars. His relationships and trust with star players, including NBPA president Chris Paul, have been the greatest factors in the league’s labor tranquility since Silver ascended to replace David Stern.
Now, for reasons economic and competitive, most players are willing to finish the season. In some cases, the further down the standings teams are, the less motivation exists for a short training camp and a handful of games.
Just over two months ago, there were owners unclear that they would need to shut arenas down to fans — never mind stop games. But the world changed fast. Today, owners are championing testing and research studies. Sacramento’s Vivek Ranadive has discussed the Israeli breathalyzer test for the virus with his peers, sources said. Boston co-owner Steve Pagliuca is monitoring a Harvard test study on possible saliva testing.
And the owners understand something else too. Silver is the best messenger to reach players on the financial strain approaching the NBA. That’s why a week ago, Silver was on the phone with players describing scenarios where revenue could plummet, where fans could slowly, if it all, return to NBA arenas as ticket buyers.
“It sucks, but it just may be our reality for a while,” Silver told players on the call, according to audio obtained by ESPN. “It may be that … there’ll be a point we can bring a portion of our fans back where they sit every other seat or every third seat.
“…Assuming a vaccine isn’t coming any time soon, are there things we can do in our arenas where maybe we can’t have 19,000 people, but maybe we can have 5,000 people? Maybe we can have 8,000 people? Maybe there are protocols allowing for it?”
On the board of governors call Tuesday, the league and owners also spent part of the discussion on the issue of fans returning to arenas next season, sources said. The NBA is studying how teams could get creative, if necessary, with 15% to 20% capacity in buildings.
Most teams are modeling ways to get fans into premium seating arrangements if social-distancing protocol limits — or prohibits — fans in arenas. And one team’s already investing in research showing how fans wearing masks and limiting attendance of those in vulnerable age groups and with pre-existing conditions could lower game-night risks to something closer to the flu than COVID-19, sources said.
That’s a long way off right now, and there’s no telling when and how fans could return. Silver sold that message to the players a week ago, and he’ll be selling it again as negotiations with the union take shape.
The NBA and NBPA have months of negotiations ahead of them that could fundamentally impact competitive balance, guaranteed contracts, free agency, and the gap between big- and small-market teams.
Beginning today, 25% of players’ paychecks will be withheld, but the players never threatened to use the enacting of Force Majeure — a mechanism to recoup a percentage of salaries upon the cancelation of games — as a reason to be less cooperative in this return-to-play conversation. The star players are on committees fully engaging with the league office.
How long does the goodwill last? Well that’s a different story. As revenues shrink, so does the salary cap. Billions — not millions — are expected to be lost from an original $8 billion projection in revenue for 2020-2021.
Through it all, Silver’s union relationship has been remarkably collegial. He got on a call with his star players and union leadership, delivered stark financial realities tied to declining revenues, promised difficult negotiations on a long list of collective bargaining issues, prepared players for the possibility that 40% of the league’s revenue — all tied into game night receipts — is uncertain for next season, and, still heard the players’ thanks and praise for getting on a call with them.
Against the backdrop of the Major League Baseball Players Association’s war with MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred, it is a dramatic contrast in realities. It seems, anyway, that the NBA has a far easier path to agreeing on the conditions of a return this summer than Major League Baseball.
The NBA commissioner’s communication and trust with the NBPA’s president has been strong for years — and his working partnership with NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has been much more productive and cooperative than that of their late predecessors — David Stern and Billy Hunter.
Before Paul was elected as the union’s president, Derek Fisher possessed an intimate knowledge of the CBA, understood the financial issues in great detail. Still, his limited stature as a journeyman role player didn’t allow for his rallying of players. Paul’s stature and style does, and his ability to engage LeBron James on league matters brings significant clout to the messaging for members of the union and public.
As the NBA creeps closer to a return, Silver has the support of the constituencies needed to salvage the playoffs and declare a champion. Even so, this virus moves fast, destroys plans and makes everyone and everything adjust to it.
For now, the NBA waits on Adam Silver’s nod to start the league again, on a leap of faith into the darkest of unknowns.