How “Capital Punishment” Weakened Owner Leverage In NBA Labor Negotiations

How “Capital Punishment” Weakened Owner Leverage In NBA Labor Negotiations

NBA Labor negotiations were always going to be significantly more complicated than then NFL Labor negotiations because the NBA doesn’t have nearly the revenue nor profitability of the NFL. This isn’t a case of figuring out how to ideally split up healthy profit margins so NBA owners have had a real incentive to take a hardline approach to negotiations.

The NBA Players Association leadership was already playing hardball by encouraging players to seek contracts from other professional leagues in other countries (or if that was a coincidence, then it has certainly worked in the players’ favor). The thought process being, if NBA players start showing up in highlights for other leagues, the public won’t sympathize with NBA owners while seeing that highlights can happen outside of NBA games.

But Saturday’s summer league showcase between Washington D.C.’s Goodman League and Los Angeles’ Drew League turned out to be a significant event that should give significant additional leverage to NBAPA Director Billy Hunter and his negotiating team. Hunter’s strategy could quickly move from players actively signing in other countries, to actively having NBA players play games right here in the US market.

As it turns out, a summer league basketball game played at a women’s liberal arts college that did very little advertising between two summer leagues that 90% of basketball fans have never heard of actually garnered significant interest both live and online. The game, dubbed “Capital Punishment” was so loosely set up that it was postponed twice, yet still reportedly turned away “thousands of ticketed customers” who had paid between $25-$60 per ticket and the streaming video feed (offered at $4.99 in advance/$9.99 game day for the game at crashed due to overwhelming interest.

A rematch, potentially including Koke Bryant playing for the team from LA, has already been discussed and will surely be bigger than the first go-round. Similar summer league showcases are in the works and the success of “Capital Punishment” will only add fuel to the fire.

In the age of Twitter, everyone that follows Kevin Durant or John Wall on Twitter (which includes most NBA basketball fans) knew about the Goodman vs Drew showdown well in advance. Because players like Kevin Durant and John Wall were interested in talking about it on Twitter, fans found themselves quickly interested in the game.

As a basketball fan myself, I can remember a time not long ago when reports from NBA summer league play were hard to come by in any format. Heck, I remember not long ago when my local NBA team regular season home games were blacked out. Now any summer league game with Kevin Durant and John Wall is easily available in HD, and it’s clear that there is plenty of demand to see Kevin Durant and John Wall play basketball even if it’s a meaningless game between teams no one has ever heard of. Before Twitter and the widespread availability of broadband video and a cheap, self-service video streaming platform (provided by DaCast), it’s unlikely that I would have heard about such a game and impossible that I would have been able to watch it.

This is a significant blow to the NBA owners’ stance that the franchise is the product, not the players, or that players need the franchise more than vice versa. Miles Rawls, head of the Goodman League, and Dino Smiley, head of the Drew League, look like they are going to make a relative killing betting that the players are, in fact, the product. Trinity University’s gym seats 1500 and if the average ticket price is $30, that’s $45,000 in revenue for a summer league game. If 1000 people paid $4.99 for the streaming video feed, that’s another $5,000, although I’ll be curiously looking out for the actual numbers. Those are intentionally conservative revenue estimates.

As Kevin Durant said before the game, “I really just want to do it for the people, man.” And the players backed up that sentiment since none of the players were paid and all travelled on their own dime. And NBA owners were shown, definitively, that it’s easy to turn a healthy profit when Kevin Durant and John Wall are the product, even if profits from “Capital Punishment” are going to charity.

Unlike startup football leagues, which have all floundered competing with the NFL, it looks like the NBA has a less defensible advantage. No one is going to suggest that Drew or Goodman can become legitimate threats to the NBA, but this exercise should show owners that are more vulnerable than they might have originally thought. Expect to see more of these type of summer showcases and Billy Hunter would be wise to further exploit this vulnerability.