NBA: The lockout we don't care about

Posted: September 16, 2011

WHAT IF you held a lockout and hardly anyone cared?

That's what the National Basketball Association is finding out right now.

It has been nearly 2 1/2 months since the owners locked the players out on June 30 and the NBA effectively stopped doing business, but it's barely registered a ripple on the sports radar.

On those rare occasions when someone has actually mentioned the NBA, the general consensus has been, "Who cares? We'll see you if you get back."

Most people seem resigned to the idea the 2011-12 NBA season will be shortened and actually could be canceled. But the general public doesn't appear to be all that distressed.

On Tuesday, NBA officials and representatives of the NBA Players Association met for what were termed critical meetings if training camps were going to open on time on Oct. 3 and the regular season was going to start as scheduled on Nov. 1.

The talks went so well that NBA commissioner David Stern suggested that it was best to scrap yesterday's scheduled negotiating session so the two sides could step away from each other.

"We're a bit pessimistic and discouraged at one, the ability to start on time, and we're not so sure that there may not be further damages or delay trying to get the season started," players association executive director Billy Hunter said.

But the NBA's real problem is how little interest its failed negotiating session garnered. It wasn't the lead to any sports sections. It didn't generate any buzz on sports talk radio.

Compare that reaction to the ones that went on before the NFL ended its lockout. Commissioner Roger Goodell and players association executive director DeMaurice Smith could barely make a move without a bevy of reporters being right there in their faces.

Even the most remote rumor of a move in negotiations was pursued aggressively and fed to an eager fan base waiting for the return of our true national pastime.

And on Aug. 6 when Goodell and Smith signed the agreement ending the lockout, the NFL was welcomed back with loving arms. There was no public backlash. It was as though the previous 18 1/2 weeks had never happened.

The NBA doesn't have that kind of reverence. The NFL is treated like a "need" by the American sports public. The NBA is not. When you hear people say missing an entire season might actually be good for the NBA, you get the feeling they mean it.

A lot of fans consider the NBA a broken product. Think about the Sixers. How much are Philadelphia fans actually going to miss another season of the Sixers hovering around .500, making the playoffs as a low seed and then exiting after the first round?

Consider that three-quarters of the franchises in the NBA are in similar situations to the Sixers, and you see the NBA's problem.

Most of its fans already feel they get a bad product.

The NBA and its players association need to seriously consider the consequences of what they are doing to their product.

We knew NFL fans would come back. We know that baseball fans always come back. You can't say that about NBA fans. The NBA ranks third among big four professional sports league, but there is still a wide gap to be covered before it reaches the status of MLB and the NFL.

With the NFL just kicking off and baseball about to enter its playoff season, few people even know that NBA training camps are scheduled to open in a few weeks. Under normal circumstances, the NBA would be swallowed up by the shadows of the NFL regular season and the baseball playoffs.

It's generally not until after the Super Bowl that the NBA emerges as a prime-time factor in the sports consciousness.

But the bigger issue is that basketball is the only professional sport in America that has a legitimate alternative. Unlike in football, baseball and hockey, the NBA is in direct competition with the college version of its sport.

Now, in some places, college football is considered as big and in some cases bigger than the NFL. But it's not really a direct competition. Most fans simply enjoy both. Perhaps that's because of the traditional understanding that Saturdays are for college football and Sundays are for the NFL.

That relationship between college basketball and the NBA is not that neat. There is consistent overlapping in scheduling, so fans are often faced with an either/or decision. More than a few prefer to patronize the collegiate game at the expense of the pro game.

Except for die-hards, no one gives their undivided basketball attention to the NBA until after March Madness. And then of course at that time, baseball is starting up again and the NHL is gearing up for the playoffs.

Under the best of circumstances, it's easy to overlook the NBA for large stretches of the sports calendar. The longer the Association continues its lockout, the easier it will be to say, "Out of sight is out of mind."

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