Commentary

Power to the people

There would be no lockouts if the players were owners. So why haven't they taken over?

Updated: October 20, 2011, 10:59 AM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
Dan Gilbert Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCavs owner Dan Gilbert says nearly 75 percent of NBA teams lost money last season.

This story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IS THERE ANYTHING MORE BORING than a lockout? One gray-haired, grimly smiling guy steps from a fleet of SUVs to a battery of microphones and says he wishes the two sides weren't so far apart. Another gray-haired, grimly smiling guy steps from the next line of SUVs to the same microphones and says his side's resolve is stronger than ever. Instead of highlight reels, we get a dull, corporate scorpion mating dance.

But a footnote in history says our sports don't have to be held hostage by negotiations. In 1890, a group of baseball stars formed the Players League, which shared profits among athletes and investors. Greed and mismanagement doomed the league after only one year, but its concept of solidarity still applies. Now that the NBA lockout has already brought, as of press time, the cancellation of at least two weeks of games, the sport's stars have even more incentive to take control of basketball's most valuable resource -- their talent -- and start a league of their own.

"I've discussed forming our own league with LeBron," Carmelo Anthony told The Mag in mid-October after playing in the South Florida All-Star Classic, a packed-house charity game that also included King James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade. "You can see the fan reaction here. They need it, we need it. I can tell you that I'm working on something. We'll see what happens."

Amar'e Stoudemire agrees: "It's something that we've thought about. Obviously we want to play in the NBA and get this situation resolved. But if it doesn't, we still want to play at a high level and keep our fans satisfied."

In other industries where talent works with suits to produce entertainment -- Hollywood, music, publishing -- artists receive royalties. Yet in sports, the concept of players as owners remains a novelty, even though it's the athletes we pay to see. Since the Players' League folded a century ago, athletes have been punching clocks in all our major sports. Incredibly lucrative clocks, for sure. But NBA owners have let hard-liners like Cleveland's Dan Gilbert and Phoenix's Robert Sarver set an agenda of reducing the money flowing to players by hundreds of millions of dollars. If the NBA players' association reacts by simply conceding a few percentage points of revenue, the owners will come back in a few years, claiming more losses and seeking more givebacks.


To see the business model for Keating's possible player league, you must be an Insider.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.