A Slippery Slope to Irrelevance: On the NBA Lockout
Issue   |   Wed, 09/28/2011 - 02:33

The National Basketball Association (NBA) announced on Friday that the start of training camps would be postponed indefinitely and cancelled 43 preseason games scheduled for October due to the on-going struggles to reach a labor agreement between the Players’ Association and the owners.

As of press time, the lockout has now been in effect for 90 days and shows no signs of coming to a halt in the near future. While experts predicted extended labor negotiations and the possibility of a lengthy lockout throughout last season, the consequences of not reaching a deal have turned from the theoretical to the tangible—a scary thought for Commissioner David Stern and the rest of the league.

For die-hard NBA fans like me, the prospect of a season cut short by the labor dispute is unsettling; I thoroughly enjoy watching NBA games in November and December, when the playoffs seem ages away and the grind of an 82-game schedule puts every team through its ups and downs.

For the casual fan, however, this is not the prime time to tune into basketball telecasts. The usual Nov. 1 starting date for the NBA season comes a mere week after the end of the World Series and right in the middle of week eight and nine of the National Football League (NFL). Many fans will easily substitute more NFL games to replace the occasional TNT Thursday game that they would have watched in a normal NBA season.

While some of us will miss Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith arguing on national TV before a pair of enticing matchups between the titans of the NBA, our numbers are not strong enough to put the league into a panic about the lockout situation.
The owners know that interest in the league only picks up as the season goes on, which means that they are probably more than willing to miss a few games in order to get their way in negotiations. There is a major divide between the owners and players at this point, with the owners demanding that the players cut their portion of BRI (basketball related income) from its present level of 57 percent to less than 50 percent.

The players have actually been willing to concede some of their BRI, but the main sticking point for them has been the owners’ demand for a hard salary cap. A hard cap would essentially prevent teams from going over the salary cap to sign players, which the current soft cap allows in many cases. The difference between the two systems is a great deal of saved money for the owners, which is why they are willing to wait and accept a few missed games to remedy a system that is irrevocably broken in their eyes.

While it’s tempting to compare this situation to the NFL lockout, the attitude towards missing games is a major point of divergence between the two disputes. Despite the hard negotiation tactics employed by NFL owners and players, both parties faced an enormous amount of pressure to avoid missing any games, even preseason contests.

Think back to earlier this summer for a moment: each and every time there was even a minute development in the NFL negotiations, the story led the way on SportsCenter and received an obscene amount of debate, overshadowing the MLB games that were actually happening at the time.

To further demonstrate the rabid nature of professional football fans, remember that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was booed at the NFL Draft in April, when the season was four months away!

Imagine the backlash if even one week of preseason had been cancelled due to the lockout — ESPN would have run almost nothing else and the speculation about the future direction of the NFL would circulate around the sports world until Skip Bayless’ head exploded from screaming too much on ESPN’s “First Take.”

Now think about the fanfare, or lack thereof, that accompanied the cancellation of NBA preseason games. ESPN.com’s featured stories on Friday included an article chronicling Tom Brady’s rise to the top of the NFL and another piece on the hit movie “Moneyball,” while the link to the NBA story was listed under a multitude of other headlines on the side of the page. My guess would be that if the NFL had cancelled any games and entertained the slightest notion of a lost season, all parts of ESPN unrelated to the NFL would have temporarily ceased to exist.

This, however, is exactly where the NBA stands — on the precipice of losing games and perhaps an entire season. While these negotiations might not have the desperate urgency of the NFL talks, both parties should realize that they are tiptoeing on a fine line between losing a few relatively unimportant games and losing an entire season from which the league might take some time to recover.

Agent David Falk, who represented Michael Jordan throughout the superstar’s career, supported this notion by recently telling the SportsBusiness Journal, “If we miss any regular-season games, I am skeptical that we will have a season.”

Those involved in negotiations should heed Falk’s suggestion that missing games could be a slippery slope and eventually cause significant backlash towards a league that just enjoyed one of the most entertaining seasons in its history.

The NBA Finals pitted Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks against the “Big Three” of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named, who, along with their teammates (yes, there were other players on that team!), represented the Miami Heat. This matchup riveted the entire nation for myriad reasons, and the Mavericks’ victory provided a jump in anticipation for the 2011-2012 season.

If the lockout continues and the season never materializes, NBA fans will miss the Mavericks attempting to defend their championship against a number of challengers from the Western Conference, including the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, an aging Kobe Bryant looking to match Michael Jordan with six championships and the upstart Memphis Grizzlies.

We would miss the battle in the East between MVP Derrick Rose’s team, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. Most important, of course, we would miss the chance to cheer against the Heat for an entire season.

In short, we would miss a lot of compelling subplots that make the casual fan turn to the NBA for entertainment. The league should be careful to avoid such an outcome, and remember that in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, even an incredible league can be forgotten if it loses the magic that made it popular.