After one of the most successful basketball seasons in recent memory, the NBA lockout could not have come at a worse time. Ratings went through the roof, and merchandise sales shot up for the first time since the mid-’90s. Walking around town, everyone was talking about the NBA finals, and how exciting the down-to-the-wire games were going. It’s undeniable that the media portraying the Miami Heat as villains and making everyone’s home team a “good guy” against them seriously boosted the appeal of watching the NBA.
Despite the momentum picked up in 2010-11, the NBA may be lost in the shadows again if any games are lost to a lockout. In the U.S., it’s no secret that the MLB and the NFL are what the majority of sports fans get excited for, while the NBA struggles for the same attention by marketing off superstars. If history has shown sports fans anything, it’s that when a sport isn’t on to talk about, it can become forgettable. Just look at how many people forgot about soccer once the excitement of the World Cup in South Africa died out last year and fans in the U.S. were subjected to watching the MLS.
The 1998-99 NBA lockout shows a clear picture of what will happen if any length of the season is missed, and the picture is a serious loss of viewership. Even though a 50 game regular season was still salvaged in the lockout, ratings dropped for three straight years afterward, and attendance at games dropped 2.2 percent immediately. It took several years for the NBA to recover as the attendance continued to drop another two percent over the next two years.
This year’s NBA finals had the highest rating in 11 years in Game 6, up 35 percent from the last time the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat met in the NBA finals five years ago. It also says a lot that the ratings were up 22 percent from last season’s game six when two of the league’s most popular teams, the Lakers and the Celtics, faced off in the finals.
Under the structure of the last collective bargaining agreement, players received approximately 57 percent of the total revenue gained by the NBA. Many people would consider these disputes ridiculous, with the impression that millionaires and billionaires are just greedily trying to make more money. However, with 23 of the 30 teams reporting losses last season, it’s understandable that the owners want to restructure the cap system and lower player salaries throughout the NBA. It’s also understandable that the players want to keep their salaries high with most players having to pay large sums to agents, trainers and attorneys, along with providing for their family.
The owners and players are currently in the thick of negotiations, with the owners pushing for a hard salary cap. Their current offer is reported to be imposing a surprisingly low cap of $45 million per payroll. The proposition of having such a low cap could prove to be a lot of trouble for many of the contenders in the NBA, as several solid teams have payrolls much higher than the proposed $45 million. The big three of Miami (Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh), are scheduled to make over $47 million alone, filling out a complete roster with those three stars on the team would be out of the question. Other teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Mavericks have committed payrolls of over $91 million, $72 million, $76 million and $63 million, for the 2011-12 season respectively.
The cap would provide a lot more parity in the NBA, which would create a lot more excitement for the smaller markets, but also unfairly diminishes teams with good core rosters currently. With the cap, teams with multiple “star” players will have to spread the talent around in order to avoid going over the set cap. Fans shouldn’t fret about losing their favorite players yet; the proposed $45 million is just that—a proposal. It’s likely that when we finally see a compromise it will be a higher figure that will allow teams to keep the majority of their rosters together.
The players and the owners need to come to a decision quickly in order to avoid fans losing interest in basketball. Whether the players or the owners are the ones to cut some slack, they both realize that they need the fans to make up for the losses in revenue. There’s not an easy way of handling the issue, which is why the blame can’t simply be placed on either party, but it’s clear that the NBA needs and wants to continue the momentum coming off the buzz of the 2011-12 season.