NBA's Holiday Gift to Marketers? An End to the Lockout

Players, League Reach Labor Agreement, Games to Start with Christmas Triple-Header

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The National Basketball Association and its players reached a labor agreement that would settle an antitrust lawsuit and end a work stoppage nearing its sixth month.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said the league plans a 66-game season starting with a Christmas Day triple-header. If players and owners ratify the deal reached early Saturday morning, Mr. Stern said the NBA will open training camps Dec. 9 and he expects the free-agency period to begin that day as well.

David Stern
David Stern

"We've reached a tentative understanding that is subject to a variety of approvals and very complex machinations, but we're optimistic that will all come to pass and that the NBA season will begin Dec. 25," Mr. Stern said in a news conference.

The news will be welcomed by a variety of media and marketing players, including NBA sponsors such as Kia, MillerCoors and American Express. It will also come as good news to TV outlets such as Disney's ABC Sports/ESPN and Time Warner 's Turner Networks, the latter being particularly exposed to a prolonged lockout because it lacks lots of substitutable sports programming. Other TV networks have been looking to poach advertising dollars that would ordinarily go to NBA games.

Christmas Day return
Announcement of the deal came on the 149th day of a lockout of players that began on July 1, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired. Negotiators met for 15 hours in talks that began in New York at noon yesterday and lasted until after 3 a.m. Today.

The deal would allow the league to hold regular-season matchups on Christmas Day, which traditionally have been some of the most high-profile contests of the season.

"This tentative litigation settlement is a fair one for all parties and one which will hopefully bring a great Christmas present to fans and communities as well," said Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney who represented players in their negotiations with owners.

The original schedule included three games on Dec. 25: an NBA Finals rematch between the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and runner-up Miami Heat, the New York Knicks hosting the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls playing at the Los Angeles Lakers.

"We want to play basketball," Mr. Stern said. "We have fans, we have players who want to play and it's always been our goal to reach a deal that will get us playing."

The only other time the NBA lost regular-season games due to a work stoppage was during the 1998-99 season, which was shortened to 50 games from 82 after the two sides could not reach an agreement until January 1999.

This was the second major U.S. sports work stoppage this year. The National Football League locked out its players in March before reaching a 10-year agreement in mid-July, losing only the Hall of Fame exhibition game from its schedule.

Two years of discussions
The two sides began discussions more than two years ago. They've been negotiating over how to split money from a league that had about $4.3 billion in revenue last season, and what type of system the NBA would operate under in future years.

Mr. Stern has said NBA teams collectively lost at least $300 million in each of the past three seasons. Union Executive Director Billy Hunter and President Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers said during the talks that players, cognizant of economic conditions, understood the league's finances and were willing to take less in the new agreement, though Mr. Hunter has said the losses amounted to less than $200 million.

Neither side released specific terms of the deal. Mr. Hunter said details would be available within a week.

The regular season had been scheduled to begin Nov. 1. Mr. Stern has said it would take a month after reaching an initial agreement to begin regular-season play. The players will re-form their union in order to vote on the agreement.

"Rather than pursue this in court, it was in both of our interests to compromise," Mr. Hunter said in a news conference, adding that he's confident players will support the agreement.

~~~Bloomberg News~~~

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