x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Winter of discontent looms for American sport fans

Lockout in the NFL and no new deal in place for the NBA means trouble ahead for devoted fans.

Many college players have opted out of the NBA draft for the security of spending another year on campus.
Many college players have opted out of the NBA draft for the security of spending another year on campus.

If you are a devotee of US team sports who holds the view that watching games is an inalienable right, you might want to turn off the news for a while.

If you cannot fathom why wealthy players and wealthier owners risk their product over how to divide a treasure chest full of revenue, you should stick to Wimbledon and reruns of Rory McIlroy hijacking the US Open.

If you immerse yourself in the NFL or the NBA to escape from the real world of work stoppages and labour-management headbanging, take a trip to some deserted island (without internet access) until all of this nonsense is over. Just in case, pack plenty of clothes and sunscreen.

The NFL is nearing its 100th day of lockout status since the expiration of its agreement with the players' union.

The NBA is eight days away from the deal with its union running dry. A lockout is likely to follow.

Team owners climbed out of their private jets and limousines - the NFL in Chicago, the NBA in New York - for crucial meetings on Tuesday. Separately, the players associations plotted how to preserve, if not drive up, average salaries of US$1.9 million (Dh6.979m, NFL) and $4.8m (NBA).

If neither league can get on the same page - one that contains signatures on new contracts - an autumn and winter of discontent looms.

NFL management has wasted everyone's time, except their attorneys', counting on the courts to settle their standoff.

When an appeals panel agreed to consider the legality of its lockout, party-pooping Judge Kermit Bye squashed any celebrating by owners when he uttered four ominous words.

The court's ruling, expected next month, shapes up as one that "neither side would like," warned the judge with the ironic surname. (The decision could extend the lockout, resulting in several bye weeks for every team.)

So the owners ought to be in a two-minute-offence mode to present an offer acceptable to the union. The feeling is that most are in a compromising mood, but all it takes is nine stubborn mules out of 32 to obstruct.

The NBA, in a similar pickle, just put to bed a hugely successful season of its own. It has amassed so much momentum that we would be fine, after catching our breath, to see it tip off again tomorrow.

Attendance inched up to an average of 17,306, the fifth-highest ever. Ratings for the three main televising networks soared 28 per cent and more.

The Miami Heat became an ongoing subplot whose bumpy ride, followed daily, delighted their hordes of haters. The Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics checked out of the play-offs early, making room for young, exciting teams to inject some freshness.

The finals concluded as most American movies do - with the perceived good guys winning. The Dallas Mavericks could have only been more popular against Miami if they had U-S-A stitched into their jerseys. Now comes a stalemate between the short guys in suits and tall guys in uniforms on some core issues: the rigidity of the salary cap, the future of cap exceptions, the length of contracts, the amount of guarantees.

Management did relent on a demand for non-guaranteed deals, a sign of hope. But no accord appears imminent, and there is already collateral damage.

The Summer League in Las Vegas, an annual showcase where fringe players can make an impression and college draftees get their trainers wet, has been cancelled.

Free agent movement and trades, the main means for roster upgrades, will go into deep freeze on July 1.

As for today's NBA draft, normally the goodnight kiss to a great date, this one is resembling a clammy handshake.

Many decorated college players have opted out of the draft to spend another year on campus. They prefer the safety net of scholarship money than risk being idled by a lockout that cuts into the professional season.

With all of the defections, the projected No 1 overall pick will have an unfamiliar ring to some as Kyrie Irving of Duke was laid up with a toe injury for most of the college season.

Bismarck Biyombo might have an awesome name, but nobody in America is familiar with his game. Same with Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic and Donatas Motiejunas, each expected to receive the David Stern handshake higher in the first round than expected.

With the start of next season four months away, urgency is not prodding basketball's feuding families. But a quick solution would restore the feel-good ambience of the year just concluded.

NFL owners, in the meantime, need to unleash a hurry-up offence of negotiating to salvage an exhibition schedule, some five weeks off, that brings them an estimated $1 billion.

Until then, we will brace for idle Sundays, empty stadiums and, as crime expert Ray Lewis predicted, increased lawlessness.

The Baltimore Ravens linebacker, who apparently became an authority from pleading guilty to obstruction of justice (thus avoiding murder charges) in a 2000 killing in Atlanta, really, truly made that absurd prediction.

It was in the news. All the more reason to turn it off until sanity in our two cherished sports leagues is restored.