The NBA: Where Fan Indifference Happens

The other day, we posted an article which described some of the business aspects behind the current NBA work stoppage. However, one thing that wasn't discussed in Mike Azmera's otherwise excellent piece on the NBA lockout was the potential fallout which would occur if games are not played very soon. I think that one of the reasons that Mike did not contemplate such a scenario is that he hopes that games will start soon.

And they will start at some point. At some point, players will miss checks (and maybe even the competition), owners will play ball, and a deal will be done.

However, the lockout has damaged public opinion of both sides. Even if games are played this season (an uncertain proposition), there has already been significant time off and momentum has been lost from a strong playoffs this past spring. The question has to be asked: when the NBA comes back, whether this season or the next, will anyone be watching?

Over a year and a half ago, we posted what now seems to be a rather prescient piece on one reason why the NBA should avoid a lockout. Among other things we wrote:

...over the next few years, both the NBA and the NFL face major labor issues. Strikes and lockouts are not unfamiliar to fans of America's major sports. Some of the biggest, including the baseball labor stoppage in baseball in the 90's and the lost year in the NHL a few years back, arguably caused at least medium-term pain to the leagues. Baseball's labor stoppage hurt ticket sales for a few years until a certain steroid-fuelled home run craze brought casual fans back. Arguably, the NHL has yet to return to its peak pre-strike popularity, though the recent Olympics is sure to help. Despite inevitable rebounds, however, even short- to medium-term dents to profits and popularity would be damaging to the NFL and NBA.

There could be no better study in contrasts than the NBA and the NFL with regards to how labor problems have been handled this year. The issues might not have been as contentious in pro football as they are in basketball, but there were some serious differences between the sides going into the current season. However no one involved wanted to see time missed, mainly because of what we noted above; some people get fed up with leagues after strikes, some people simply find other things to do.

Considering the fact that the NFL is far more popular than the NBA currently, and could have weathered a post-strike storm perhaps the most easily of all the major US sports, the fact that those associated with pro football heeded this warning should have been instructive for those involved with the NBA. Clearly it wasn't, and both the players and the owners have, probably in their respective minds justifiably, dug in. While there is still hope for a season, it will at best be shortened. At worst, in a scenario which doesn't seem that unlikely based on recent player comments, the '11-'12 season will be lost.

Changing gears a bit, we continued in the conclusion of that post:

...no one could make a logical argument that soccer is anywhere close to supplanting basketball as a major sport in the US. Pro football is even stronger. However, soccer has a foot in the door, and it may only be a matter of time before it steps all the way in. The surest way for the major sports in the US to ensure that soccer is one day counted among their number is to engage in damaging labor stoppages. In addition to the obvious factors, this is another reason why ownership and players representatives should try their best to avoid stoppages while there is still time.

This was a fairly strong statement, and it is not clear that it has held true; in all likelihood, NBA fans aren't turning en masse to the MLS playoffs or the English Premier League to satisfy their hoops cravings. However it is nonetheless true that people have been finding things to do in the absence of the NBA. And the longer the league isn't in session, the more things casual fans can and will do to fill the gaps. Whether it is indeed watching soccer, other pro sports in America, college hoops or Australian Rules Football or even reading this blog that people do is really inconsequential to the broader point; the longer the NBA is away, the less people will miss it.

Or, in other words, if the NBA 'happens' and no one is there to see it, will it still make a profit? Lets just say that there is a very good chance that a 50/50 split of revenue isn't going to mean what the parties involved think it means by the time the numbers are calculated...


  1. I do think that Josh is right to point out that casual fans (and maybe some diehards) will find other things to do with their time. This is a problem that will only grow as the lockout continues. And even my optimism about a quick resolution is fading.

    But the bright side (from the NBA's perspective) is that many NBA fans will probably just watch more college basketball. This might just help to promote the NBA. As people watch college basketball, we develop fan relationships with college players. And usually we have strong opinions and feelings, whether good or bad, about good players. These players often go pro.

    For this same reason, the NBA is smart to seek a higher age limit, basically requiring players to spend 2 years in college. This would allow the NBA to capitalize on college basketball's popularity because it will allow many NBA players to become household names before they even reach the league. Also, it would serve the double purpose of bust prevention by giving scouts more data to work from before drafting guys. Sorry, got sidetracked there.

    Back to the lockout, I think that the NBA and NFL might be more built for missing time than the NHL and MLB were. The NBA benefits from a readily available substitute that directs people back to the NBA. That is, at least as long as the NBA comes back for the playoffs.

  2. Josh Sturtevant13/11/11 13:51

    Good points re: the college game. I think that there is something to that, and that extending the age cap will certainly help a bit.

    However, even if that is true, it will take time for everything to catch up, and I really think The League might be in for a lean year or two.

  3. Jerry Newhall18/11/11 12:58

    And on another note, happy birthday to BlawgConomics founder-in-chief Josh Sturtevant. Hope it's a good one.