This lockout passed ridiculous well before David Stern stayed home from school sick yesterday. Obviously, there are major differences between the players and the owners in terms of what the revenue split should be, the length of a max contract, and a number of other issues. But it’s as if both sides haven’t even looked up from the monumental hole they’re digging to see whether anyone cares if they pull themselves out.
It’s common knowledge that the only league that could weather a prolonged lockout (especially in this economic climate) is the NFL. The rabid demand that this country has for football, combined with only two days a week to watch it make for huge numbers in every area that it touches. Football is America’s game now and its national popularity is unrivaled.
The NBA’s national popularity is certainly going to take a hit from this lockout, but only a jab at worst. But regional popularity, the support of individual teams, is what fuels the national presence. And that’s where the NBA is going to get hammered.
People are fans of a team first and foremost, not the NBA as a whole. I watch the NBA because I am a Knicks fan, not vice versa. I usually make it to 2 or 3 games at most a year, and would try and make it to more if I had the money. MSG is appointment TV on game nights regardless of what else is on, regardless of whether the point guard has been Chauncey Billups or Chris Duhon.
The finals were one of the most highly rated ever because of how regionally polarizing they were. Dallas and Miami fans obviously tuned it because their team (and it disgusts me that the Heat are “Miami’s team” when in every sport outside of football, Miami has possibly the worst fans in sports) had a chance to win it.
I watched it for two reasons; of course to see a high level of basketball. But what superseded that was that I only wanted to see it from one team. I was OK with watching the best player in the whole league fail miraculously because of he screwed MY team in the offseason. I’m sure plenty of Chicago fans felt the same way, and all of Cleveland probably huddled around one of the two functioning TV sets left there, voodoo dolls clutched firmly in their hands.
Plenty of people that watched the Finals this year weren’t that concerned with seeing a high quality of basketball. They just wanted to see LeBron (or for Toronto fans Chris Bosh) fail because of a team allegiance. And I'm sure this extends to different fan bases. For example, during the Magic-Lakers finals, Celtics fans probably shared the same sentiments about Kobe Bryant.
If or when the NBA comes back this season, there are 10 or so cities that will welcome it back as if it never left, and about 5 more who will take a while to warm up, but return in full force within a month.
But the NBA is going to lose major ground is in swing cities where basketball and hockey were on level footing in terms of regional support before the lockout. Cities where all the fans that live and die with the NBA sit in one section, adrift in a sea of casual fans who come to games because of the atmosphere of the event, and not any particular tie to the team.
The obvious cities are the ones far enough north that the ponds freeze. Minneapolis, where the Wild outdrew the Timberwolves by an average of 3,000 fans per home game last year, would certainly qualify. But looking into it further, this makes sense in Minnesota, a town that isn’t exactly steeped in basketball tradition. Moreover, the Wild have regularly given their fans something to cheer for, while the T-Wolves haven’t sniffed a winning season since Garnett left town.
The trend is reaching even farther south into more important cities. I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for long enough to know that people down there could really give a shit less about the Wizards.
Even with a potential franchise savior in John Wall, the Verizon Center is first and foremost where the Capitals play. Back in 2007, the last time the Wizards advanced to the playoffs, was the last time that basketball was the main draw. The Wizards had an average home attendance of 17,962, and the Capitals averaged a meager 15,472.
Since then, the tables have turned completely. Last year the Wizards averaged slightly under 17,000 fans per home game, good enough to fill 83.2 % of the Verizon Center. While the Caps, who have built an exciting team around possibly the best player in the sport, averaged 18,397 fans per game, which filled the Verizon Center to capacity.
But obviously the issue is not just about walk-up attendance this day in age. The interest in a team can be gauged just as accurately by TV ratings. According to Sports Business Journal last year, the Capitals finished the year with a 1.8 average to the Wizards 1.15, that’s a 57% gap between the two teams. What’s more, the Caps appear to be trending heavily upward (the 1.8 was up 12% from 2009), while the Wizards essentially numbers have essentially stagnated for the past few years.
Judging by these two numbers, it’s safe to say that despite being south of the Mason-Dixon line, Washington is pre-eminently a hockey town. And it's obvious just by going to games; the Verizon Center comes to life when the Capitals are there. There are more people, making more noise, who care much more about the outcome of the game
Now, with the NBA not showing any interest in maintaining the small fan base that they have in Washington, those numbers are likely to skew even more towards the Caps, even when the Wizards eventually slog back into the Verizon Center with their subpar squad.
And Washington is just one of several cities. Take Boston for example. If basketball comes back in December, Boston fans will be coming back to a team on the downside of its apex, without a bench presence capable of effectively spelling the well-aged starters.
Or, they could continue to support the reigning Stanley Cup Champions stocked to the brim with 27-and-under talent in their quest for a very plausible repeat. In Boston, the Red Sox run the town with the flavor of the week always determined by who has the winning ingredients. I defy any Boston sports fan to tell me that the Celtics have a better chance of winning a championship than the Bruins this year, so why wouldn’t Boston fans place their faith and attention with the surer bet?
What Philadelphia fans are going to turn their attention back to a middle of the road 76ers team, when they have the option to watch a serious contender with the Flyers? The same argument can be made for Detroit. The Charlotte Bobcats, despite playing in a city almost double the size of their hockey competitor, did not outdraw the Carolina Hurricanes last year.
And as this lockout continues to drag on and on, even the die hard fans get tired of being treated like shit. With the Jets mustering all the offensive firepower of a gas station sparkler, I need the distraction that basketball usually provides, but there’s nothing to follow right now. No news about how the rookies are acclimating because they have nothing to acclimate to. The normally non-stop gossip of the free agent rumor mill is non-existent.
The only NBA news trickling out has been copy and pasted day to day for the last few months; the owners and players obstinately sticking to their guns on the same 4 or 5 issues, and having less successful lock-in’s than the bloods and the crips did in South Park. It’s fucking depressing.
So my two options are to delve deeply into politics for the 6 days in between Jets games, or watch hockey. Needless to say, the precious little I know about the Islanders is much more than I ever thought I would. With the most intriguing college basketball season in years still weeks away, the Islanders are all that's on tap right now.
I never originally latched onto hockey for a number of reasons (one of which being that I never played it, which I think is tied very heavily to following a sport. I skate like a baby giraffe walks because my freakishly tall and thin dimensions aren’t meant to function in skates. Stop making it look so fucking easy Zdeno Chara).
But the primary one was that I never thought it would catch up in popularity with the NBA. And I don’t think the NHL would ever have a chance of catching up if owners and the players could decide how to tie the NBA’s shoes.
It’s evident in every conversation I have, or Facebook status that I see from an NBA fan that the lock out is wearing very thin. It’s becoming difficult to rationalize caring so much about the return of a sport that so transparently could give a damn less about its fans.
The complete lack of urgency or progress during this lockout tells me one thing. At one point during the meetings, the fans have inevitably been mentioned, and completely dismissed with the notion of "don't worry, they'll be back, let's continue banging our heads against a wall."
And I will be back, because I can't cut ties with a team that I've been following since I was 4. Because after sitting through 10 years of Keith Van Horn for Tim Thomas, the Curry-Randolph front-court tandem swallowing the whole pre-game buffet and then the ball, and simply having to deal with Isiah Thomas’ existence within the organization, I feel like the Knicks owe me something. But somehow, I think I’m going to be looking back at plenty of people wondering where the hell I’m going.