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NBA lockout may mean lost season, experts agree

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Even with the news Tuesday that the NBA’s feuding owners and players reportedly have agreed to meet Wednesday and Thursday, the situation appears grim for NBA fans awaiting a November tipoff.

Owners locked out the players on July 1 when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expired. Management argues that ballooning player contracts are sucking up disproportionate amounts of revenue. Some owners want to impose a hard cap on salaries — a non-starter among the players.

There is some reported compromise. Owners claim a $300 million loss across more than two-thirds of the NBA’s teams. While the players’ union disputes the league’s accounting, it reportedly has agreed to reduce players’ take of league revenue from 57% to 53%.

amNewYork spoke with several sports business experts about three possible scenarios for the scheduled 2011-12 season.

1. Full 2011-12 season

The first indications that the full season could be saved, said Duke University Law School professor Paul H. Haagen, will come “when you start to see one side or the other losing control. ... That will soften positions in such a way that you get movement.”

And yet, with training camps supposed to open Oct. 3, both sides appear unified. Still, the public perception of an impasse may differ from the reality that exists behind the scenes.

“Collective bargaining is a funny process,” said Mark Conrad, professor of law at Fordham Schools of Business. “It’s done behind closed doors, and just when you think something’s about to happen successfully, something could turn and fall apart, and vice versa.”

2. Shortened 2011-12 season

Even if the season begins to shed games in November, there will still be hope for a truncated regular season and full postseason, as the NBA hastily arranged in the January following its 1998 lockout.

“So it’s still unclear what’s going to happen, but make no mistake: David Stern would be willing, if need be, to cancel part or all of the season,” Conrad said.

Given that the issues driving this labor impasse appear to be every bit as stubborn as those of 1998, the season could again go to the brink this winter. But what would that brink be?

“If it’s less than half a season,” Conrad said, “I think that would be a tipping point.”

3. Canceled 2011-12 season

The league’s players and owners each face internal divisions — between well-off superstars and role players and between large-market and small-market teams — that need to be resolved in addition to the deep divisions between management and labor.

“It makes it harder when you’re not on the same page to start with,” said Loyola Law School professor Daniel E. Lazaroff. “There’s a big difference between a labor negotiation where management is claiming significant losses, and one where it’s just a matter of splitting up the pie.”

That’s gives some owners incentive to lose a season and avoid paying salaries, said Wayne McDonnell, professor of sports management at NYU.

“It’s almost like a bankruptcy filing, where you have 90 to 120 days to kind of get your inventory in check and put together a reorganization plan of how you can handle your finances,” McDonnell said. “This is an opportunity to kind of put some control and better fiscal measures in place rather than just throwing money at a problem and letting it get progressively worse.”

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