Blame for the NBA labor impasse is being passed around like mashed potatoes during Thanksgiving dinner. There’s more than enough for everybody, even though everyone is taking a lot. But don’t forget that there’s some on your own plate, too.
The NBA and its players are able to take us for suckers because we are suckers, as long as you realize that “we” in the short term means hardcore NBA fans and in the long term means all sports fans. I include myself in both groups. The NBA and the players know they can get away with canceling games, even an entire season, because they know that the hardcore fans will be back in their seats no matter when the next NBA game is, and with even a little bit of luck, the game will eventually recover some of the legions of casual fans it is losing with every minute the lockout drags on.
I know I’ll be in my usual seat in Loud City whenever the next NBA game is, whether it’s in November 2011 or November 2012 or somewhere in between (which is and always has been my uneducated guess). I’ll probably even buy a new Thunder T-shirt in between now and then — an officially licensed version and a Tree and Leaf version both, most likely. I might even stop for a beer on my way to the seat, too. I’ll keep spending my hard-earned money as long as there’s a product I would pay to see, and the Thunder as currently constituted certainly is that, for this year and for years to come. So that remains a primary reason why the NBA and the players will ultimately get away with this.
The cost, financially and otherwise, for an interruption in peak interest by the casual fan will be more immediate and more serious. It will take awhile to gain the momentum that has already been lost with the cancellation of games. The NBA and its players are screwing up part of what appears to be a golden era in the sport, wasting part of the prime of some of the most glittering talents to ever bounce a basketball. But the momentum will be regained.
The lost postseason of the baseball strike in 1994 is the best example of this. It took awhile for baseball stadiums to be filled to the capacity that owners had gotten accustomed to after the strike, but it’s not like there was true long-term suffering. More than half of the MLB stadiums in current use were built after the strike, representing billions of dollars in mostly public spending. Yeah, the MLB has declined in overall popularity in terms of the number of people who follow it as their No. 1 sport, but that has more to do with the rise of football than the strike. The NBA will probably be in the same point in 2025 as it would have been without the strike.
But what are we to do, stay away from a sport we love just because we’re mad at the people involved? That’s cutting off our nose to spite our face. There’s no way I’m going to miss out on whatever future the Thunder has in store for us. And neither will many of the legions of new Thunder and NBA fans like Mrs. Patrick James, who are so enthralled with the magnetic (and polarizing) personalities on the Thunder and in the NBA at large. It’s those new and casual fans who may be turned off the most by all this, and the ones the NBA is at the greatest risk of losing, but even many of them will still come back to the league when the labor disagreement is eventually settled.
Still, even though we fans are suckers, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other suckers out there. Next on the list would be the players, who are letting the NBA’s owners and their own agents take them for suckers too.
Out of all the parties with a direct financial interest in the lockout, the players are the ones with the most to lose. They have the shortest career spans of everyone else, and the vast majority of them will never make anything even close to the money they’re potentially missing out on. Meanwhile, most of the owners have other businesses that mean their bank accounts will continue to grow no matter how long the lockout lasts. The agents are making greedy plays to protect salaries for decades at the expense of salaries now so they can continue to collect massive commissions on contracts. But let’s say you take some random player who could miss all of his paychecks this season on a $5 million salary. The chance that the player will make anything close to $5 million for the entirety of his post-basketball life, especially when you exclude his NBA pension, is pretty small. The list of failed business ventures spurred by a retired NBA player’s “investment” is a lot longer than the successful ones. Only a handful of NBA players will be able to continue making money off just being themselves, and only a handful of them possess the business acumen to make that kind of money without relying on just being themselves in that regard.
That’s not taking a shot at the intelligence of the players — at least in and of itself. I don’t have the business acumen to make that kind of money either, and few other people do, either. Otherwise there would be a lot more self-made millionaires around. But the players are playing hardball with a group of people that includes lots of guys who do have that kind of talent. And their bargaining chip — withholding their talent by not accepting a deal they don’t like, at least not yet — is a good one, but it doesn’t compensate for the fact they’re depriving themselves of one of the few high-earning years most of them have available to them. It’s just dumb. They can argue they’re trying to protect their salaries in the future, or the salaries of future players, but that doesn’t hold much water either. Lots of them would lose more by sitting out a year than they would by smaller rollbacks to future salaries. And is it a good idea to try to save money for future players instead of themselves? Have we seen anything recently to show that NBA players of the future would be willing to sacrifice some of their own cash to, say, increase the pension or benefits for retired players? I sure haven’t.
Still, I think most people are like me in putting the most blame at the feet of the owners, or at least the owners who aren’t willing to bend on whatever the players want them to bend on. We don’t really know for sure which side each ownership group is on. I’d like to think that Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon just want to get on with the games, but I have no way of knowing. But the NBA owners at large take vast sums of public money in the form of taxpayer-subsidized arenas and are now willing to let regular season games, and possibly an entire season, get swept away so they can make even more money than they are now. Or should be making now, anyway. With blueprints like what has been going on in San Antonio and Oklahoma City available, and sparkling arenas paid by other people ready for their use, any owner who can’t at least break even is dumb enough to the point he shouldn’t be trusted with sharp objects. Stay the hell away from my sport, please. Stop signing players to stupid contracts and employing ex-players and coaches to negotiate with ruthless agents who negotiate for a living, then let’s see how you’re doing financially.
Are the players and owners really stupid enough to kill this golden goose? And can it even be killed in the first place? I guess we’re about to find out. We already know the owners and players are stupid enough to at least stab the goose, just to see how much they can make it bleed, I guess. And we fans, who gild the goose with our money, are probably dumb (or enthralled) enough to keep it alive no matter what.
Unless it really is different this time. I listened to local and national radio for about 10 minutes each this morning on my drive to work. There wasn’t a minute of lockout talk on either one. Not even a bare mention of it. Surely both programs got around to discussing the lockout, but the fact it wasn’t important enough to make even a mention in a couple of different segments shows you just where the NBA might stand if I’m wrong about the fans. You think news of cancellation of part of an NFL season wouldn’t make it into those segments? It would dominate the airwaves for weeks. Instead, the Detroit Lions made more headlines this morning in many cities. Insert your “in this day and age, with current attention spans and the availability of choice” comment here. There’s a lot going on, so maybe the time really has come when people will simply find something else worthy of their attention.
Probably not. Sports at the highest level will pretty much always be able to win the attention of enough people to make them multi-billion dollar enterprises. And we just have to accept our role in it. But in the meantime, that won’t stop us from being truly disgusted and hurt while we watch the owners and players bicker. Mad even. Just like spouses who argue about something, there is eventually a reconciliation.
But for now, the NBA is definitely considered to be sentenced sleeping on the couch for awhile, at best, in the James household and many others. And while they’re on the couch, we’ll be watching compelling sports on television without them. We’ll see if they can get us to change the channel when it comes time again.