NEW YORK — Six weary figures rose from their chairs early Saturday, their expressions telegraphing the conclusion to the NBA’s five-month labor crisis: Basketball is back in business, with a new labor deal that heavily favors the owners, despite some last-minute concessions.
The league wanted an overhaul of its $4 billion-a-year enterprise, and it got it, with a nearly $300 million annual reduction in player salaries and a matrix of new restrictions on contracts and team payrolls. The changes mean a $3 billion gain for the owners over the life of the 10-year deal.
Before finally agreeing to those sacrifices, the players’ negotiators won a handful of concessions that will allow the richest teams to keep spending on players, ensuring a more competitive free-agent market.
A truncated 66-game schedule will begin on Christmas Day with three nationally televised games. For that, officials on both sides were grateful as they announced a resolution at 2:40 a.m. CDT, on the 149th day of the lockout, after a final 15-hour bargaining session at law offices in Manhattan.
“We look forward to opening on Christmas Day,” , the NBA’s deputy commissioner, said during the brief news conference. “We’re excited to bring NBA basketball back. That’s most important.”
A little more than two weeks ago, the talks appeared dead. A federal mediator had intervened twice, failing both times to bridge the divide. Commissioner had tried threats and ultimatums before declaring negotiations over on Nov. 10.
Four days later, the players dissolved their union and filed a federal antitrust lawsuit. Stern promptly predicted a “nuclear winter” for the league, amid widespread predictions that the 2011-12 season would be canceled.
The deal was finally forged by the possibility of a cancellation, the feared loss of billions of dollars to the league and its players, and, perhaps, by the uncertainty created by the looming legal battle.
The new agreement, according to a memo Hunter sent to union members, calls for players to receive a 51.2 percent split of basketball-related revenues with the owners for this season. The players had been earning 57 percent.
The loss of 16 regular-season games and the preseason cost the owners and players about $400 million each. The parties had already resolved the biggest issues, including the $300 million salary reduction, weeks ago, but were hung up on fairly minor details — mostly rules restricting the top-spending teams from adding players.
With a 66-game schedule in reach, everyone finally resolved that those items were not worth sacrificing a season and alienating fans and sponsors. The normal NBA regular season is 82 games.
“For myself, it’s great to be a part of this particular moment, in terms of giving our fans what it is that they so badly wanted and want to see,” said , president of the players’ union.
Fisher did not smile as he said it, appearing more relieved than happy.
Billy Hunter, the longtime head of the players union, sat stoically next to him. No one on the players’ side praised the deal.
League officials achieved their two broadest goals — reduced costs and a system that evens the playing field between the richest and poorest teams. The reduction in player salaries should offset the NBA’s reported $300 million in annual losses, and provide total savings of about $3 billion over the 10-year agreement.
Each side has an option to terminate the deal after six years. In addition to the significant pay cut for players, the deal includes shorter contracts, smaller raises and a more punitive tax system to rein in the top-spending teams.
“I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agency market in a way that they have been able to in the past,” Silver said. “We feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships.”
Training camps will open Dec. 9. Unsigned players will be permitted to sign new contracts that day, setting up a chaotic two-week mad dash toward the 2011-12 season.
The three Christmas games are likely to be the ones that were already on the schedule: The Knicks will host the to open the day, followed by an rematch, with the visiting the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. The will visit the in the finale.
The rest of the schedule will be reconstructed and released in the coming days. The season will begin eight weeks later than originally scheduled, requiring some major contortions and stress for everyone involved.
The regular season will be extended into late April, pushing back the playoffs and the Finals by a week. To fit 66 games, teams will have to play about two more games per month.
Teams will sometimes have to play on three consecutive nights — something that has not been done since the lockout-shortened 1999 season. That season, the shortest in the modern era, is often regarded with an asterisk and was marked by sloppy play and out-of-shape players.
The 2011-12 season may need only a quarter-asterisk. Every team will play 48 in-conference games, just four fewer than normal. But teams will play only 18 out-of-conference games, meaning not every team will visit every city.
The entire collective bargaining agreement must be formally written and ratified, but both Stern and Hunter expressed confidence that the deal would be approved.
Tying up loose ends
The announcement in the wee hours of Saturday morning of a handshake agreement between the NBA’s owners and players on a deal to end the lockout doesn’t guarantee there will be a 66-game 2011-12 season that will begin on Christmas Day.
As deputy commissioner Adam Silver reminded: “We’re on an incredibly tight schedule, as you might imagine, between now and opening on Christmas.”
Express-News NBA beat writer Mike Monroe presents a tentative timeline that can turn the tentative agreement into the reality of a 66-game season:
Dismiss lawsuit: On Monday, players listed as plaintiffs in the anti-trust lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court for the 8th District in Minneapolis will ask the judge assigned to that case to dismiss it, removing it from the process altogether.
Reclaim interest: Also Monday, leadership of the trade association that previously was known as the National Basketball Players Association will reclaim interest in representing the players, effectively reversing the action taken two weeks ago when the union disclaimed interest.
Recertify union: After reclaiming interest, union leadership will seek a vote of all the players to approve reorganization of the union.
Address B-list: Also Monday, negotiators for both sides will meet to work on numerous “B-list” details left hanging, including the draft, D-League and drug testing.
Vote on it: Once agreement is reached on all B-list issues — hopefully in nine or 10 days — a formal document will be submitted to both sides for an up-or-down vote as a new collective bargaining agreement. The full membership of the union and all 30 teams, through the Board of Governors, must approve the deal, by a simple majority.
Begin camps: If the CBA is approved, training camps and a short free-agent signing period would begin Dec. 9.
Start season: The regular season would begin Christmas Day with a tripleheader, starting with Celtics-Knicks at the renovated Madison Square Garden. Then a rematch of the Finals with the Heat visiting the Mavericks, followed by Bulls-Lakers at Staples Center