My friend said, “This NBA strike is ridiculous. The players are already making tons. Why don’t they just quit whining and play?”
I can’t say I disagreed. Only one problem. The NBA players never struck.
Instead, the owners created and publicly defined the issues in their lockout, forced the issues by setting the deadline, and – according to conventional wisdom – successfully achieved their major goals at the players’ expense. In basketball terms, the owners got the jump, controlled the ball, ran down the clock, and slam dunked a last second shot to win.
Why? What happened and how can we learn, as constant negotiators ourselves, from the miscues made in these negotiations?
Let me first state that I have no inside information. I only know what I’ve read, heard and discussed with friends – none of whom were involved in the NBA negotiations.
But much was played out in the public arena. And it’s obvious who played this game most effectively. The owners.
Of course, they started with the ball, a lead, and the players in foul trouble. Public perception of the players before the lockout was unsympathetic at best. Player-gentlemen like Michael Jordan seemed on the way out with brats seemingly entering the fray and representing the future.
It’s tough to be sympathetic to players when their union defends coach-choking players like Latrell Sprewell. And when newcomers like Kevin Garnett sign $126 million contracts.
So the players started down – and promptly fell even more behind. From the beginning, the owners set the agenda and drove the process. They prepared for the lockout. They warned of the lockout. They started the lockout. And they seemed willing to cancel the season.
They could do this because they appeared to recognize one of the most powerful aspects of any negotiation, their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA. A party’s BATNA is its best realistic alternative if no agreement is reached.
That alternative here for the owners? A canceled season. But a canceled season the owners made sure would not devastate them financially. Sure, they would lose significant revenue from canceled ticket sales. But they minimized the financial damage this alternative would inflict.
How? By taking steps – before the lockout – to ensure they would receive TV money during a lockout and giving themselves a good shot at not having to pay player salaries during the conflict.
They thus had the power and the will to set the agenda and follow through on their promise to cancel the season.
By contrast, the players’ BATNA wasn’t strong. They were not getting paid – and some could not comfortably write off a year’s salary. And even if they could, they did not appear willing. Unlike the owners, they had not improved their BATNA before the lockout. So their canceled season kitty was running near empty.
Of course, other factors also impacted the negotiations. The players never presented a united front nor refocused public attention on the owners’ actions. My friend thought the players’ struck.
Plus, player representative Patrick Ewing was not truly representative of many players. And agents had their own agendas.
But, in the end, the owners’ BATNA gave them the power to drive to the basket with a few seconds left for a relatively uncontested dunk.
So the owners won. Or did they? For this series isn’t over yet. Thousands were unrepresented at the table. That’s right. We don’t know whether and to what extent the pro basketball consuming public will return for the next round. They could still take a big chunk out of the owners’ and the players’ hides.
Now we’ll see if the rest of us will pay to see them play. Or if our alternative – other entertainment forums – will be superior to the NBA. Stay tuned.
Published February 5, 1999 The Business Journal