The new NBA season kicked off Tuesday night, with the Miami Heat hosting the Boston Celtics in a matchup of two of the most popular sports teams in any North American sport. And while professional basketball begins to dominate the sports landscape, along with the NFL, the current NHL lockout continues to put hockey on the back burner.
The biggest threat that the NBA poses to the NHL is that it can steal a lot of the casual fans who fell in love with hockey over the last few years, but don't want to deal with the lockout when the NBA excites them, too.
Watching the NBA is much better than listening to the same boring rhetoric from the NHL and its players time and time again. The lockout isn't even a big story in many cities at this point.
Casual fans are a vital part of the NHL. But as the NBA season gets underway, the chances that these important fans will remain interested in hockey decrease with each passing day. There are very few NHL franchises that don't compete for business with a nearby NBA team.
Another problem for the NHL is that many of its large-market teams are in cities where there is also a good NBA team that has an opportunity to make a deep playoff run. This will also hurt the NHL's chances of keeping casual fans.
Fans of the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings will all have elite NBA teams to cheer for this season, which will help them forget about hockey while the work stoppage continues. The last thing the NHL wants is for sports fans in large markets to forget about hockey.
The NHL has made so much progress in important American markets since the 2005 lockout, demonstrated by the fact that the last five Stanley Cup champions have come from major markets—including the end of championship droughts for the Blackhawks, Bruins and Kings.
Hockey's popularity in these markets will lessen as the NBA season starts up and the NHL lockout drags on.
However, the large-market NHL teams aren't the only ones that will suffer when the NBA begins to dominate the sports conversation around the country.
Look at the Florida Panthers, who have finally built a promising playoff contender for their fans to be excited about after many years of failing to make the postseason. This progress could be decimated once the NBA starts and a lot of the sports fans in South Florida turn their attention to the defending champion Miami Heat, led by superstar LeBron James.
Teams like the Panthers are really going to suffer during the lockout when their NBA neighbors rise to the forefront of their city's sports scene.
A lot of hockey fans don't like basketball, but since so many of these same people are so fed up with the NHL and its players for putting them through another lockout, it's certainly possible that some die-hard hockey fans could become more interested in the NBA this season.
The NHL owners are severely underestimating hockey fans' patience in this lockout, and once this stalemate finally ends, they will mightily regret this.
The NBA had one of the most popular seasons in its history last year. And with so many major television networks—ESPN, ABC, TNT and numerous local Comcast stations—spending lots of time broadcasting and analyzing NBA action, hockey will fall farther off the sports map unless the NHL and its players get back to the bargaining table quickly and end this lockout.
The sad part is that, despite the negative impact that the NBA season will have on hockey during the lockout, the two sides involved don't appear to be motivated to get a new CBA done.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also the organization's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.