Lebron James to Europe? NBA Labor Negotiators’ Worst Nightmare

At 9 P.M. tonight, Lebron James is making his big announcement about where he will play next season.

Cleveland? Chicago? Miami? New York? New Jersey?

What about Europe?
Lebron once told ESPN he might play overseas for $50 Million per year. And NBA players should hope that Lebron chooses Europe for reasons far more important than just their chances of winning an MVP Award.

As most basketball fans know, the NBA collective bargaining agreement (pdf) is set to expire on July 1, 2011. Thus far, the NBA club-owners have taken a hard line stance, demanding that players accept a reduction in the current salary cap. According to NBA club-owners, they are losing money due to the down economy.

Irrespective of whether NBA owners are actually losing money, their demands right now are credible. If there is no other practicable place for top NBA players to work, the NBA players union will have no choice but to either accept the NBA’s proposed terms, strike, or seek to decertify the union and file an antitrust suit against the league (all undesirable options — each for different reasons).

If Lebron James makes the bold decision to sign in Europe, however, everything could change. The NBA club-owners would likely abandon their proposal for a lower salary cap because capped NBA clubs would struggle to compete for top players against uncapped EuroLeague clubs. Indeed, the very moment Lebron James puts on a EuroLeague basketball uniform, the threat of other players following him overseas becomes more credible.

While the thought of a star player leaving the NBA to help fight against the salary cap is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Back in August 1989, player discontent with the NBA’s salary cap (one that disparately impacted new players) led two young NBA players, Brian Shaw and Danny Ferry, to sign contracts with the EuroLeague club Il Messaggero (now known as Virtus Roma). Shortly thereafter, Il Messaggero began to court other top NBA players including Rick Mahorn (successfully) and Patrick Ewing (unsuccessfully). As a result, the NBA clubs simply agreed to increase their salary cap.

Despite the current down economy, there are probably a few EuroLeague clubs that could attempt to get into the action for one of the world’s best basketball players. For example, the Greek team Olympiacos Piraeus—winners of the 2006-07 EuroLeague championship—are owned by billionaire Greek brothers Panagiotis Angelopoulos and Giorgos Angelopoulos. The team plays in an approximately 15,000-seat arena, has already signed former Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Childress to a three-year, $20 million contract, and is seemingly not affected by the Greek debt crisis.

The Angelopoulos brothers probably could afford to sign Lebron James to a 1-year, $50 million deal—especially if they then streamed their games on the Internet to a worldwide audience (something NBA clubs likely cannot do due to the league’s New Media and territorial broadcast policies).

Likewise, Greece might make an interesting one-year “home” for Lebron. Unlike NBA players, EuroLeague players only compete in one or two games per week. This would leave King James a lot of time for personal travel.

Of course, this all presumes that Lebron is really willing to leave his friends and family to go overseas–a move that is rare among American-born NBA players. Indeed, just 9-15% of current NBA players have competed professionally overseas, and many of these players only did so when faced with no NBA alternative.

However, on balance, maybe the thought of Lebron going to Europe is really not so farfetched. We’ll see tonight.
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Marc Edelman, Above the Law’s sports columnist, is an Assistant Professor at Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law. He is teaching this summer at Fordham Law School, Seton Hall Law School, and Rutgers School of Law-Camden. His full collection of law review articles is available here.

This article appeared first on Above the Law.
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