It’s no secret that negotiations are not going smoothly between the NBA owners and the players' union, and the 2011-12 season is in serious jeopardy of being shortened or canceled entirely. Of course, this would be a terrible thing for all 30 NBA teams. Or would it?
For Toronto Raptors fans, there weren’t many reasons to cheer during the 2010-11 season. They had the third worst record in the league with just 22 wins and don’t have any blue-chip prospects to look forward to next season.
At least the other poor teams from last season have the young talent from the 2011 NBA draft to look forward to. Cleveland has Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, Minnesota has Derrick Williams and Washington has Jan Vesely and the constantly improving John Wall.
But the Raptors first-round lottery pick (fifth overall) is a young man who won’t be joining the team until the 2012-13 season, regardless of when the lockout ends. Jonas Valanciunas was under contract with Rytas, his Lithuanian professional team, for three more years. But Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo recently reached a buyout agreement with Rytas that would allow Valanciunas to play in Toronto starting next season.
That’s nice, but it doesn’t help an anxious fanbase who wants to at least see the potential of their team getting better right away. But that won’t be happening this season, so those fans may as well take some time off and look forward to the long-term future. So would there really be much harm if the other 29 NBA teams were forced to take a year off as well?
It would presumably bring the Raptors closer to the pack in terms of success on the court and in the stands. Not only did Toronto finish 28th in the standings last season, but they also finished 19th in attendance. That might not look terrible on the surface, but when you consider that their attendance has declined every year since 2008, and last season saw their lowest average attendance since back in 1997-98, it’s a bad trend that was likely going to get worse this season.
In pro sports, fan interest and attendance is directly linked to how successful a team is, and if you can’t sell success, then you have to at least sell hope. Right now, the Toronto Raptors can’t really sell either. Like I mentioned, Jonas Valanciunas is the biggest form of hope for Raptors fans and he won’t be playing for the team this season.
Not only that, but other existing Raptors have decided to jump ship and play in Europe this season, regardless of whether or not there’s a lockout. Sonny Weems recently signed a no-opt-out contract with another Lithuanian team and will be playing there this season. I’m not saying that the loss of Sonny Weems is a huge reason to panic, but it’s not a very encouraging sign that Weems would rather play for a European club than an NBA team that won’t be improving anytime soon.
The Raptors have already lost many of their casual fans and with another abysmal season, many of their die-hard fans might also start to show their apathy towards the club. But with a half a season or a full season away from NBA basketball all together, these formerly restless fans will be more likely to suffer from basketball withdrawal symptoms and rush back to their television sets and the Air Canada Centre to watch the new-look Raptors. After all, any team can look new and exciting after so much time off.
If you don’t believe me, just look at how fans rushed back and supported the NHL after their full season lockout. They forgave, forgot and came back stronger than ever, setting records in attendance and overall revenue.
Now I’m not saying the Raptors will set attendance and revenue records once the lockout is over, but I can almost guarantee an increase in attendance for the first time in more than three seasons. Instead of forgetting about a last place ball club, die-hard and casual fans alike will flock back to the sport and be willing live with a couple more years of a rebuilding ball club when the alternative is no basketball at all.
The NHL isn’t the only example of a league that’s fans came roaring back after a work stoppage. Just this year, the NFL locked out its players, and even though no games were missed, just the thought of no football caused fans of the game to come back in record numbers before the season has even started.
The day after the NFL lockout ended, profootballtalk.com received the most traffic for one day in its history at 3.88 million page views. Ticket sales have also been off the charts, so the notion that fans won’t return to a sport out of anger following a work stoppage has been proven to be false.
If that’s not enough to convince you that a lockout might turn around the Raptors franchise, the possibility of a hard salary cap being implemented might. It’s one of the things the owners are pushing for in labour negotiations and if they get it, the Raptors will likely be one of the teams that benefits from it.
Many players have had a history of being hesitant to come to Canada and play for Toronto. Combine that with the franchises inability to significantly outspend anyone in a free market place and there aren’t many reasons for free agents to sign with the Raptors.
But a hard cap evens the playing field for everyone. Players who otherwise wouldn’t think of signing in Toronto might have their options limited due to other teams being up against the cap. The Raptors could have more options when it comes to acquiring new players because of this. Of course, Bryan Colangelo still has to be smart about the players he signs, but one can only hope that a smart man like Colangelo has already filled his quota of mistakes with Hedo Turkoglu and Jermaine O’Neal and has learned his lesson.
At the end of the day, the 2011-12 season isn’t looking like it will do any good for anyone in Raptor-land. But a year off from the turmoil will turn the restless fans that were anxious to see a winner into fans that will be more anxious to see any type of NBA basketball at all. They’ll definitely be able to see that in 2012-13 when they’ll finally see Jonas Valanciunas, along with another high draft pick from the deep draft class of 2012, begin to rebuild the Toronto Raptors into a winner.