I'm not one of those who think an extended lockout will kill the NBA. We're fiends, and by and large we shall return. It took a long time for a lot of us to return after the disastrous 1998-99 lockout, though the fall-off in the popularity of the league can also be attributed to Michael Jordan's second retirement. Baseball famously rose from the ashes of its own labor stoppage through an epic home run record chase and the juiced bat era. I fail to see how the NBA can match that, short of blindfolding defenders in an attempt to get the 100-points-in-a-game mark beaten.
The truth is this: the NBA offers the best basketball in the world, but this summer and the immediate aftermath of the league's last lockout have proven that offering the best basketball in the world is not a trump card. The NBA does not have an unshakable right to strong ratings, rising revenue and increasingly large TV deals. The NBA has to earn those, and a lockout -- while foisting a more painful deal on players to erase losses -- will do the opposite.
"Shooting itself in the foot" doesn't begin to do justice to what the NBA is about to do to itself. Consider:
* The league is six years away from a new, massive TV deal. Some have predicted a 30 percent increase in national TV revenue, from $900 million to $1.2 billion. The players' latest proposal calls for 53 percent of all revenue, as opposed to the current 57 percent. (The league is allegedly still asking for 54 percent for themselves.) So the owners' cut of that extra $300 million in national TV money would be $141 million, or roughly half of the gross losses the owners claim this season, and maybe closer to 90 percent of the actual, no-questions-asked losses. (That lower loss number removes depreciation and interest payments on team purchase loans from the equation.)
* An extended lockout puts that extra revenue in danger. Consider that the NHL's playoff ratings fell by 20 percent in the season after its year-long lockout. Obviously, the league stands to gain a better TV deal in 2017 if ratings are higher. Right now, ABC, ESPN and TNT are minting money off of the NBA, and would assuredly deeply want to keep them. If you continue the lockout and drop those ratings down ... it won't be as passionate a defense, and that means real dollars out of the owners' pockets.
* Even if ratings recover by 2017, the NBA will be missing out on prime player cycles. LeBron James is 26. He won't be young forever. Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose are younger, but why would you want to waste sections of their careers? Kobe Bryant will be retiring when that new TV deal kicks in. Every day the league is locked out is a day the NBA is forever forfeiting profiting off of this current crop of stars.
* The NBA does not possess some sort of magic in producing basketball games. An inordinate amount of work goes into putting a season on, yes. But it's just that: work. There's little genius at play. You get the best players, you divvy them up, you host games in big cities, you have a playoff system, you crown a champion. That is essentially what you need to do to run the top basketball league in the world. It's not rocket science. It's just hard work.
Every minute that the NBA keeps its players locked out, the greater the chance that someone else will step in and start profiting off of them. Sunday's Battle of I-95 between Baltimore's Melo League team (Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul) and Philadelphia's club (Kyle Lowry, Tyreke Evans, Lou Williams) went off beautifully, with SI.com providing the live stream and commentary from writer Chris Mannix, and with the gorgeous Palestra playing host. The NBA didn't have a thing to do with that game ... and it sold out a gym and had any number of eyes glued to it. This is not rocket science. Once you get the players to buy in, it's just a matter of putting the pieces together. The NBA has refined the process of putting games on, but it's not like the key to pulling it off is some closely held secret.
If the NBA cancels the season, someone will step up and standardize the delivery and execution of these summer games. It could be Nike, or a media company. It could be a group of guys who already organize local games every summer, like those who have set up the Goodman League's tour and other exhibitions. It could be agents. It could the players themselves: remember, a lot of these guys are businessmen in addition to ballers.
As it turns out, there's also myriad more options for starving basketball fans than there were in 1998. Consider how many versions of ESPN there are now -- no one has to look far to see a college basketball game once Thanksgiving rolls around, and North Carolina and Kentucky are practically pro teams anyways. The internet has made following European teams feasible, as well: competitors will be glad to edge in on that NBA audience.
The NBA as a company is not special. Owners need to realize that it's the players we're after. Team owners deserve to make a profit off of their investments, but using the fans as hostages will not be tolerated. A lockout that bleeds into the season is not a necessary evil to keep the league solvent. It will do the opposite. It will prevent the league from reaching its potential, and it will alienate the fans who would otherwise help the league get there.
(Oh, and it will also cost tens of thousands of arena employees their jobs during the worst economy since the Depression. Swell.)
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