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Basketball: NBA season at risk after owners lock out players in pay dispute

A second major league US sport shut down yesterday, as National Basketball League team owners imposed a lockout on players after talks on a new labour contract broke down – making it likely that some, if not all, of the 2011-12 NBA season due to begin in October will be lost.

As with the National Football League, which is entering the fifth month of its own lockout, the dispute is about money: how to carve up revenues between the players and the franchises. However, the two cases differ in one crucial respect: while the NFL is vastly profitable, raking in a record $9bn (£5.6bn) of revenues last season, 22 of the 30 NBA teams are losing money.

As a result, the NFL dispute appears to be inching towards a settlement that will allow its newseason to start on schedule in September. But it is widely predicted that, barring an unlikely meeting of minds between the two sides, professional basketball is facing, at minimum, a repeat of the previous lockout in 1998-99, which dragged on into January and cut the NBA season from 82 games to 50.

"We have a huge philosophical divide," said David Stern (above), the NBA Commissioner, after a final fruitless bargaining session on Thursday. While Stern insists players must be paid less if the league is to eliminate 2010's overall losses of $300m (£185m), the players say the NBA is more popular than ever, and that owners have only their own poor business decisions to blame.

Under the old contract that expired on Thursday, some $600m (£370m) is taken off the top of the NBA's total $4bn (£2.5bn) revenues to cover expenses. Of the rest, players receive 57 per cent and owners 43 per cent. The latter are now demanding $900m (£560m) for up-front expenses, and a 50-50-split of what remains.

That implies rigid payroll caps for individual teams, and pay cuts for the players. Instead, the latter have countered with a proposal that would actually increase average annual player salaries, according to Stern, and condemn the clubs to further years of losses.

Unlike the NFL dispute, which saw that league accused of practising "modern day slavery", the NBA negotiations have thus far been civil in style, if not content. That reflects an anxiety not to spoil the afterglow of a vintage 2010-11 season.