NBA Lockout: Will the League Be Able to Recover from a Lost Season?

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NBA Lockout: Will the League Be Able to Recover from a Lost Season?
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
These two must come to terms on a new labor agreement if the fans hope to see a 2011-12 season.

Luckily for the National Basketball Association, the National Football League’s looming lockout has dominated headlines for weeks and thus distracted the country from a Fall work stoppage of their own. Despite the lack of media coverage, make no mistake—the NBA is headed towards a lockout as well.

Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBA player’s union, has warned his cavalry of nearly 400 players to prepare for no season in 2011-12 and has sagely advised them to save their money. Hunter was recently quoted as saying he is “99 percent sure” there will be a lockout.

Likewise, the owners are planning on bringing their hard hats to the negotiating table in hopes of significantly lowering player salaries and the length of their guaranteed contracts. 

Incredibly, despite all of the revenue generated at the gates by astronomical ticket prices, $10 beers and television contracts with ABC, ESPN & TNT valued in the billions, more than half of the league’s 30 teams are in the red and have been forced to borrow money from the league to remain viable.

The union is of course well aware of precisely how much money is at the league’s disposal. According to the union, league revenues will grow this season by three to five percent, or about $100 to $200 million. Meanwhile, player salaries are set to decline for the third year in a row since 2005’s labor deal, which reduced the length of guaranteed contracts and annuals raises.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
When Abe Pollin offered a marginal star like Juwan Howard a seven year, $111 millon deal in 1996, fellow owners took notice that player salaries were getting out of hand.

Translation: both sides think they’re right, and this is not going to end well.

In the history of the NBA, there have officially been two work stoppages. The first occurred from July 1, 1995 through September 12, 1995. The owners imposed a lockout, but because the lockout took place during the offseason no games were lost.

The second stoppage occurred in 1998-99. It was the first time actual games were lost. Essentially, it was the same battle that owners were fighting, the exponential rise in players salaries and the length of those guaranteed pacts. The NBA salvaged a 50-game season, however their annual All-Star weekend and All-Star game were eliminated.

After the 1998-99 lockout, average attendance league wide was down 2.2 percent from the previous season. Ticket sales fell nearly two percent further in the first few months of 1999-00, and consistently stayed below 17,000 per game for the following three seasons. Television ratings dropped for three consecutive seasons as well. 

All indications are, this third rendition of a lockout could potentially eliminate the entire 2011-12 campaign. The losers in this battle between tall millionaires and short millionaires is of course the fans, however.

History has shown in the MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA that lockouts can leave long lasting sour tastes in the mouths of the consumer. The last time a professional sports league cancelled a season in its entirety, it was the NHL in 2004-05. Is it any coincidence that they’ve struggled to draw the attention and the television ratings of the other professional leagues since?

Harry How/Getty Images
How's the NHL's popularity since their 2004-05 lockout?

For the average Joe, it’s difficult to comprehend how wealthy owners and rich players can’t reach a reasonable accord on how to appropriately distribute the fruitful earnings bestowed on them by the very fans they‘re raising their middle fingers to. The fans pay $15 to park, $90 for a decent seat, $10 for nachos and $5 for a Coke, and then the two sides respond with this disgusting act of greed?

The NBA’s postseason is four days into what has already been a marvelous spectacle of basketball at the highest level. Each game has either been supremely competitive or had an incredible individual performance. Dwight Howard’s 46 and 19, followed up by another superhuman 33 and 19 effort from Howard. Chris Paul’s 33 and 14 in a shocking upset over the Lakers. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 72 points in a thrilling victory over the Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony registering 42 and 17 in a narrow defeat in Boston.

The league is thriving. This is as captivating as it gets from a fan’s perspective. The championship is completely wide open, with as many as six or seven teams realistically battling for the title. There are dozens of story lines circulating throughout the playoff landscape.

Can LeBron finally win his first title? Can Derrick Rose lead the Bulls to a title essentially by himself? How will the Celtics respond without their defensive backbone Kendrick Perkins? Can the Lakers flip a switch from bored to title contender? Are the Thunder ready, or are they a year away from contention? Are the Mavericks a realistic threat to knock off the Lakers out West?

Tread carefully, NBA. You’ve got the fans in the palms of your collective hands. Don’t crush us.

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