What's At Stake In NBA Lockout During Golden Age Of The NBA?

With so many owners claiming they are losing money, the idea that they could make more money with no season than with a season is gaining steam.  Problem is, this may cost them more than cash.  The public-at-large won't be patient with this thing forever, and when that patience is gone woe betide the side dragging its feet. 

Predicting the fallout out the 2011 NBA lockout is more difficult than either party wants to admit.  With both sides signaling, with one degree of certainty or another, that they are willing to spend a season if there is no accord to be had, we should remember that the NBA has not lost a full season to labor strife.  Last week, we talked about David Stern possibly losing control of the lockout.  Today, we'll take a very general look at what the fallout with the general public might look like.

There's been plenty of talk about the current Golden Age of the NBA.  It's about to be tossed in the air like so much pizza dough, and nobody knows what shape it's going to be in when it comes back down.  Stern may have himself and the owners convinced that the damage done by the 1999 lockout was due to a lack of recognizable stars.  It is truly amusing that the owners may be counting on the newest generation of stars (y'know, the ones on the other side of the firing line) to prevent the loss of popularity that characterized the aftermath of the last strike-shortened season.

But there are more variables in play, and once again we are left to wonder just how thoroughly those owners have considered the dangers.

Maximizing profits in a recession sounds like the title of a bad infomercial.  The entertainment industry edition of said infomerical would no doubt recognize that a public battle over who gets more millions is unlikely to endear itself the fiscally-squeezed masses.  The NFL lockout isn't providing any media distraction; with the only casualty being the Hall of Fame game, not so much as a preseason will be missed.  With the possible exception of smaller-than-usual training camp crowds, the NFL lockout largely seems to have taken place before it tried the public's patience.

The players and the league have been sending signals that this lockout could be a long one for quite some time, whether you were paying or attention or not (I was too busy taking lessons from Pierre on impersonating Autobots).  That's called establishing expectations, and it plays a big part in keeping fallout minimal when the worst happens.   But successful spin control aside, it hasn't happened yet.  Nobody is going to watch a sport that isn't being played, and those fans have to watch something.

Every sport in season stands to gain.  Most of us have at least one alternate sport.  The longer the lockout goes on, the less invested fans will become and those energies will find different avenues.  We live in a consumer culture and the right to be entertained may as well be the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.  Other sports will get a bit fatter, then slim down as play resumes.  But not everyone will come back, and there is a tipping point where that trickle will become a landslide.  If an entire season is lost, that Basketball-Related Income pie is going to get a lot smaller.

There's a phenomenon I'm going to call the media saturation point, or where everybody gets sick of hearing about the same piece of news.  Establishing expectations can increase the time it takes to get to that point, but not by much, because this is America and we expect results.  The machinations we see now are in large part gearing up for that moment, who is most to blame for this situation and thus deserving of the public's ire.

Something that's likely sailed under the radar is the fact that our President is a basketball fan who is dealing with a possible financial apocalypse.  SOMEone is going to ask him about the lockout, and with his platform being one of millionaires sacrificing for the greater health of the nation, he may say something no one is expecting.  Even if it's a bland, noncommital response, awareness of the public at large will increase and this thing may get political in the worst way if it drags on for long enough.  The NBA lockout is vulnerable to being turned into a political football.

As much as the owners have hung their hat on being able to starve their players out before the major media really get into it, they don't seem to have fully grasped the danger facing the league's market share.  Or, worse, they don't really care as long as they can guarantee their profits.  Hey, it's a business.  It's also an open question as to which teams might be hurt more.  Teams like the Lakers and Knicks, with their masses of casual fans?  Probably not.  Their team gear is so ubiquitous it's practically a fashion statement rather than fandom. 

Who is going to get hurt most if this lockout goes the distance?  Probably the small market teams this lockout is supposed help.  What a surprise.

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