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Frustration and Worry

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You know, as an NBA fan typically July is one of the most interesting months of the year.  I'm talking about if you're a real fan who actually watches all year long and reads up on everything you can, rather than someone who just waits for "the second season" to start before you tune in.  July is usually free agency, trades, signings and getting our first glimpse of up and comers playing in the summer league.  July is quite often where conversations and debates which dominate an entire season often begin (look at last July's big signings in Miami if you doubt this).  August is usually a pretty slow month, while we basically wait to see how all the new teams will begin to look in training camps, but July is usually quite entertaining.

However, as we all know, that's not been the case this July.  No, thanks to the lockout this July has mainly been the time for something which should concern everyone associated with the NBA: indifference.  All those casual fans who mainly tune in for the nationally televised games and "the second season" probably could care less about the NBA's current labor struggle, especially now that it looks like the NFL season is set to go.  For many of those people they probably won't even notice that professional basketball isn't being played here in the US until almost May, and even when they do find out it's not on the air, they may not care.


For anyone reading this blog right now, however, I'm guessing none of you fall into that "casual fan" category.  No, instead you're probably like me and are anything but indifferent right now.  No, if you're like me you're mainly filled with two emotions: frustration and worry.  More than anything right now I'm just frustrated with this whole mess, and have been for quite some time.  Sports is a business and everyone involved always wants to maximize their profits, but this whole thing in my mind is a result of the NBA players and owners trying to figure out just exactly what is the maximum amount of money they can squeeze from the fans, and to do that means that every now and then they all need to stop everything and get together and figure out exactly how far is too far.

See, as a product, the NBA is most entertaining when all the games are heavily anticipated and hotly contested, and in which fans are just on the edge of their seat throughout.  Unfortunately for the people looking to make money off the NBA, delivering this type of product is not necessarily the best way to maximize your profits.  For instance, having more teams in the NBA theoretically means more money being generated for more people (more cities can sell tickets/concessions/advertising, more players/employees are employed, more jerseys are sold, etc), but the downside of this is that the talent pool is watered down (meaning each team has fewer marquee players and there are more doormat teams) and the teams all play each other less often, so rivalries are harder to develop (Boston comes to town once a year as opposed to three times a year).  Now one could argue that team expansion has been good for the league, but there's a point at which more teams becomes too many teams (for instance, a league with 80 teams in it would probably be far less enjoyable to watch than the one we currently have).  Like with anything else, if you get too greedy and go overboard with trying to do what you think could make more money, you risk weakening the viability of the product as a means of entertainment, and if you go past that sweet spot everyone loses as the audience and fans simply walk away.

This type of thinking can be applied to many areas in sports and in the NBA: player salaries, ticket prices, merchandise options and prices, the number of advertisements sold, etc.  I mean, if the NBA began mandating TV timeouts every two minutes and if the NBA began selling advertising on the jerseys like the players were NASCAR cars, and if the NBA plastered onscreen ads across the TV while games were in progress (oh wait, they sometimes do that), then this would generate more income for everyone involved, but it would do so at the expense of fan interest.  And as we all know, if you lose fan interest, then the whole thing falls apart.  

So in effect, all that is going on with this lockout (and with the last one) is everyone is arguing over where that sweet spot between maximum profits and fan interest lies.  We can all be sure, however, that if the owners were charging less for tickets, merchandise and concessions, that if there weren't as many advertising dollars being sold and if the players were all playing for less money, then fan interest would be higher and the owners and players wouldn't have to squabble over who gets the most billions of dollars.

For me as a fan, as someone who remembers back when the last minute of a basketball game didn't take a half hour in real time to play out and back when the players all worked their asses off or they knew they'd be out of the league without enough money from their last contract to set themselves and their subsequent generations up for all of eternity; seeing a whole lot of nothing going on in July frustrates the hell out of me since I know instead we should be seeing player transactions galore and having out appetites for the coming season whetted.  It frustrates me to know that it's a near certainty the players and owners won't have this stuff figured out by the time the season is scheduled to start, and that instead the sport that I love will just be sitting on the shelf for however long it takes these guys to work it all out.

But in addition to being frustrated with this whole mess, I'm worried as well.  I'm worried because unlike in the NFL, this lockout is not just a result of rich owners who are making a killing battling it out with rich players who are making a killing.  No, this lockout is a result of rich owners who are losing money hand over foot (due to their own stupidity and inability to prevent themselves from overspending themselves into the poorhouse), and players who not only don't want to take a pay cut, but who actually may have the ability to win this staring contest with the owners by playing overseas to supplement the lost salaries they'd be missing out on.  I worry, in other words, that we may not have a season at all this year.

What if most NBA players find they can go overseas and get along quite nicely without the NBA for a while, even for a year or two or three?  How long will the owners go on locking the players out if the players have no real reason to budge?  If the owners have to keep things going roughly the way they have been during this last CBA, what will that mean for the future of the league?  If the owners and players can't come to an agreement in the next year and we lose the entire 2011-2012 season, what will that do to fan interest?

As unrealistic as it is, I can't help but be nostalgic for a time when there wasn't so much money for everyone involved to quibble over.  David Stern has helped the NBA reach unprecedented heights of marketability and brand awareness, but at times like this I have to wonder at what cost?