The Milwaukee Bucks and the rest of the NBA are now four days into a lockout that is expected to last months. Discussions between the two sides will not begin again for another pair of weeks while the problems simmer. Though each work stoppage owns its own unique sets of circumstances, there’s one question that always comes up in all professional sports lockouts/strikes, whether they be in the NFL, NHL, MLB, or NBA.
“Can the players just bypass the owners altogether and form a separate league?”
In a word? No. No, they can’t. They don’t have sufficient capital to do it themselves. And if they look elsewhere, finding investors/cities/arenas would prove to be too big a challenge. The organizational structure required to pull off this maneuver falls beyond what any subset of a league’s players could produce.
So why does this question arise so often when the answer is transparent? Because the players have a ridiculously small amount of leverage. They are salaried employees possessing one skillset that only a single employer values. When that employer no longer desires their services, the employees’ only option is to create new jobs where there weren’t any before. And as outlined above, that’s not an easy feat.
That is, unless you’re a basketball player. Basketball players possess three advantages over their athletic peers in this situation.
1) Basketball requires fewer participants than other sports.
Unlike a football game, which would require at least 75 players, or a baseball or hockey game, which would require about three dozen athletes, a basketball game can be held with as few as 10 players. To be on the safe side, 16 would suffice quite nicely – 8 per squad. The point here is that organizers won’t have to convince as many players (and/or marquee players) to get a project off the ground.
2) Basketball players are familiar to their audience as individuals.
Jerry Seinfeld once said that being a sports fan was about “rooting for laundry”. If we’re talking about the NFL, he’s right. If we took all the NFL players and shuffled them around to various teams with weird uniforms while removing their names and numbers, would anyone want to watch? Would anyone know who the players were, save for a quarterback here or there? Now do the same for the NBA. The players would be recognizable, the styles and faces known by fans regardless of what uniform they wore. Since the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the NBA has marketed the players as individuals. The players simply need to wake up, realize the Dirk-tastic advantage they have over other athletes in other sports, and run with it.
3) Basketball has a history and a tradition of barnstorming.
The only way for players to put pressure on the owners is to play. Leagues are the wrong model. To get a product on the floor, the players need to think along the lines of the modern concert tour. The blueprint isn’t the NBA, it’s a Rolling Stones World Tour. Layout a series of cities/arenas willing to host an event for a few days. Sign players to go on the tour with their compensation based on a percentage basis of all generated income: tickets, merchandise, concessions, TV rights, etc… Promote. Repeat.
Barnstorming works on so many levels. When baseball, football, and hockey had established leagues running in North America in the 1920s, basketball outfits roamed city-to-city in events promoted by colorful flyers and word of mouth. (See the Free Darko book on basketball history for a detailed recounting of some of those squads; it’s my favorite part of their book.) Examples abound. The Harlem Globetrotters have subsisted for 85 years as a roadshow. The And1 Live Tour is a modern incarnation of the old barnstormers. Unlike the other sports, basketball is spectacle. Hell, the NBA has admitted as much during its first lockout week by broadcasting old dunk contests on a 24-hour cycle. Dunk contests. They could show championship games, or games where records were set, but they know where ratings – and the hearts of their viewers – lie. Add those (and other all-star-type events) to the traveling show. The fans will flock to them.
And so please, dear players, on the behalf of basketball-starved fans everywhere, I beg you to get this show on the road.