Adapted from “Committing to an Arbitrary Deadline,” first published in the February 2012 issue of Negotiation.
Arbitrary Deadlines in Negotiation
During the NBA’s 2011 lockout, NBA commissioner David Stern’s arbitrary deadlines may have done more harm than good. But he had more luck with an arbitrary deadline during the league’s previous lockout, which whittled the 1998–1999 NBA season down to 50 games per team, as Don A. Moore explained in a 2004 article for Negotiation.
During that season, after six long months of heated bargaining, the players and owners remained far apart.
As the number of canceled games mounted, the parties became increasingly aware that they were sacrificing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. It was time for them to get serious.
On December 23, 1998, Stern announced that if the owners and players didn’t reach agreement by January 7, 1999, he would recommend canceling the remainder of the season.
As Moore notes, the date Stern chose had no particular significance to either side. (See Also: Win Win Negotiations – Managing Your Counterpart’s Satisfaction)
Yet through public statements, the team owners committed themselves to declaring an impasse if Stern’s deadline wasn’t met.
Cracks formed within the players’ coalition, and in the wee hours of January 6, the two sides agreed to a deal that dramatically favored the owners. Why was Stern’s arbitrary-deadline strategy effective in 1998 but not in 2011? Because he and the owners made it credible through their unified stance and public threats.
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