Tuesday night was supposed to be the tip off to what the NBA said would be its "most-watched season ever on TV." Last year's Eastern Conference runners-up, the Chicago Bulls, were set to visit the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, while Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant were set to square off in Los Angeles. Instead, sports fans had only one option that night -- Northern Illinois v. Toledo -- while NBA owners and players try to figure out how to resolve a 2 percent difference in proposed revenue splits.
Where's the outrage from NBA fans?
Sadly, a great ambivalence about the NBA lockout has set in among casual NBA fans. They are not allowed to witness what goes on behind closed doors and are thus resigned to sit back and watch the stalemate. Indeed, why should these fans be concerned about missing games when the league isn't concerned about missing them? Even though there is a core group of rabid fans fighting the good fight, unfortunately, at this point, there are far more fans who don't care.
The fact that most NBA fans aren't up in arms that games are already being canceled should scare the hell out of NBA Commissioner David Stern and the league. The casual NBA fan will not join the rabid NBA fans in demanding a solution, as would have been the case for the NFL had the lockout caused even one or two weeks of missed games. Instead, the casual NBA fans will simply turn to college basketball, the NHL or somewhere else. Some may even become hooked on these other pursuits, meaning the NBA will have to work even harder to win them back.
The NBA's pursuit of profits regardless of what's in the best interest of the public and fans is certainly nothing new in these times. Several commentators have compared NBA owners asking the players to bail them out for making poor decisions when it comes to player salaries to the banks asking the taxpayers to bail them out. But it was players themselves who benefitted from those mistakes. Further, at least the players have a voice. Not so for the fans.
It's long past time that fans had a voice in these sorts of negotiations. Why?
For starters, we've paid a lot for NBA arenas -- at least $2.9 billion. With indirect subsidies and uncounted benefits, that number could be 30 percent higher according to stadium experts. The public's contribution is nearly equal to the $3.2 billion in private financing. And while virtually all experts agree that a sports stadium is a horrible use of taxpayer money -- providing little to no benefit to the economy -- an even worse use of taxpayer money is an empty stadium.
But more importantly, the public -- not the players -- are the true victims here, as long as the system continues to place profits above loyalty. Even as we continue to subsidize the NBA through stadium financing, fans in many cities are priced out from games and primarily young, minority workers from our inner cities will be out of work. In some cities, prime seats sit empty in stadiums paid for with tax dollars in cities that have been ravaged by the economy, where young workers have few other options.
We also help prop up the system by granting the NBA an antitrust exemption to negotiate its broadcast contracts. Where other businesses cannot collectively sell their product, the NBA can. (And Stern has done a masterful job in selling the "NBA" to fans here and around the world.) But that exemption can always be revoked. If the league continues to ignore what's in the best interest of the public, Congress ought to start asking some questions.
The NBA's television revenue is nowhere near as lucrative as the NFL's. The league is far more dependent on gate receipts to generate revenue. That's a serious problem for the NBA. It's one thing for casual fans to become interested in games again next season when they're on television. It's quite another for casual fans regularly buying tickets to get back into the routine after finding better value for their buck somewhere else.
All of this is to say that the NBA cannot afford to alienate the fans that it has now by taking away basketball for a year. Even the fans that do come back will be more cautious with their sporting dollar, especially in these difficult economic times. More seriously, the public might awaken to how much they subsidize the NBA and shut off the tap.