Let’s play ball already!

Note to our regular readers:

From time to time, Julia and I have agreed we can use this blog to rant, rave, and vent about topics that might not have anything to do with writing. Today is one of those days, so all of you who don’t care about basketball and the NBA, my apologies for having bothered you today.

Normally as the month of November rolls in, robbing me of Fresno’s perfect fall weather—sunny and in the mid 70s to low 80s—I settle in after a long day behind the computer to watch TV, namely NBA basketball, and more specifically, the Lakers. The league’s regular season begins around the 30th of October. Thanks to NBA League Pass, I am able to watch not only the Lakers but any other team playing on any given night. (This is a very good thing for Jody, since his favorite team is in Oklahoma.) 

For those you who don’t follow the sport, you probably don’t even know, let alone care, that the NBA is on strike. All of November’s games have been cancelled by the league’s commissioner, David Stern. Given how the league’s owners and players have been fighting over the details of a new collective bargaining agreement since June, there has been virtually no NBA news all summer. That means no trades, no free agent signings, no summer league, no training camp. Nothing. Natta. Nil. And all of that means that once an agreement is finally reached, there will be a period of at least another six weeks for teams to get their houses in order before any actual games can be played. So realistically, fans can’t expect to have any games to watch before the first of January, at the earliest. There will be fewer games this year because of that lost time, which, for older teams like the Lakers and Celtics may actually wind up being a good thing. But for fans in general, what it means is we will spend less time watching our favorite sport.

I don’t like that, but I can live with it. But I have to wonder about the tens of thousands of people who depend on the NBA season for their weekly paychecks: Arena vendors, parking attendants, ticket takers, referees, security guards, game announcers and camera crews to name a few. No games means no jobs. And it goes beyond the people who work at the arenas. There are thousands more business owners who look to basketball fans to eat at their restaurants, drink at their bars, and park in their lots.

In my 2007 book, Hoop Lore, I discuss how difficult it was for the NBA to attract and maintain a solid fan base over the years. When compared with the NFL and major league baseball, the NBA still falls short on that end. But the league has been making solid progress since the early 1980s, when Magic and Bird arrived on the hardwood, and after them, Michael Jordan. There was a reversal of fortune in the 1990s for too many reasons to go into here, but suffice it to say, the league managed to rebuild again and secure what is probably its best ever following on a worldwide scale. Sadly, all of that is now in jeopardy. Apparently, little was learned from a similar situation in 1999.

I don’t have a horse in this race. I feel both owners and players are equally responsible for the mess they have created. The current minimum annual salary in the NBA ranges from about half a million dollars for a first year player to $1,350,000 for veterans. The average player makes about $5.5 million, and the league’s superstars upwards of $20 million. Owners are whining about losing money hand over fist. Even if this is true, Forbes estimates the average NBA team is currently worth $369 million, which suggests those owners are probably not struggling to pay their mortgages.

The real problem with all of these numbers is that the fans, those of us who buy the tickets and merchandise and cable subscriptions that make those insane numbers possible, are finding it rather hard to accept that millionaires and billionaires are squabbling over what amounts to pennies in our eyes. Maybe they haven’t heard the country has been in a deep recession for the past four years, and as a result, no one is making as much money as they were five years ago (if they are lucky enough to have a job at all). Or perhaps they just believe they are so unique, so special, so important that the everyday makeup of society doesn’t apply to them. Either way, they need a wake-up call. And very likely, that call will come in the form of plenty of empty seats in arenas, smaller TV ratings, and an overall disgruntled fan base that will be looking elsewhere for their sports entertainment. March Madness, anyone?