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Don’t forget the lockout: Would the NBA really do it?

Don’t forget the lockout: Would the NBA really do it?
Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Fans of few NBA teams would be as adversely affected by a lockout in 2011-12 as Oklahoma City’s. Lakers fans would miss out on what is likely (or hopefully, in the minds of his rivals) one of the dwindling years of Kobe Bryant’s dominance. The crowded Heat bandwagon, along with longer-serving Miami fans, will be deprived of what could secretly be one of the only seasons when Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh are in sync all year and at the peak of their powers — Wade turns 30 next season after all.

Thunder fans’ disappointment would rate very close. Not only would Oklahoma City miss out on a year of a young Kevin Durant’s brilliance, but this and next season will both be crucial in determining the future of the franchise. To be cold an analytical, missing out on 2011-12 would be one less year of data to decide who to pay and who to let go and one less year to develop young players. Durant is good enough on his own to keep the Thunder out of the lottery and out of lottery-like rookie talents, so the value of every ounce of data, empirical and otherwise, goes up when deciding how to build a team. But from a passion perspective, the Thunder’s meteoric rise toward the top of the Oklahoma City area’s consciousness could seemingly only be stopped by the absence of the franchise altogether or a disappointing season. Somehow, the all-too-real threat of a lockout makes the former more possible, at least for a year, than the latter.

The Boston Globe recently interviewed a couple of guys who are smart enough to speak with authority about the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement negotiations without actually being privy to them. Both of them echoed what has become an increasingly visible narrative: As a collective group, NBA owners are not going broke, but it would hardly be smart to claim otherwise now, and they would likely squeeze a bigger percentage of the pie by forcing players into a lockout. In case you were wondering who has the most leverage, I don’t think I’d go with the group that apparently has a sizable contingent in need of budgeting advice to be able to pay bills for one year right after a season of earning millions of dollars.

I fully acknowledge that, as a thousandaire as opposed to a millionaire, I can’t truly understand the value of, say, $8 million. I can’t understand what the difference is to a billionaire or almost-billionaire owner between profiting $40 million or $32 million, or profiting $4 million and losing $4 million when there’s plenty more where that came from. I don’t know what it’s like to lose or profit that amount. As a normal person, I just see those numbers and say, “Well, $32 million and $40 million are both a lot of money. Should you really be upset if you’re ‘only’ making $32 million?” But here’s what scares me. Those aforementioned smart guys, sports economists from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, point out what should probably be obvious. As Michigan’s Rodney Fort told the Globe, ” … everybody likes more money than less.” [quote]

But I argue that the owners could likely be picking up a rock only to drop it on their own feet. The pie they’re fighting for a bigger piece of could be smaller because of a lockout and a long absence by the NBA in the sports world. The Great Recession, or whatever you want to call it, has affirmed some truths that had been avoided for years in all parts of the economy, and brought up issues that matter specifically to sports. There is no commodity that can support a continuous, rapid rise in value. Player contracts and team values and ticket prices can sustain steady growth, but not long periods of spectacular growth. It’s no different from the housing market. And, with Americans paying down debt, looking for work and trimming fat from budgets, choices have to be made. Discretionary purchases, a category into which almost all sports spending by ordinary Americans must be included, have been and will continue to be slashed. People are going to be choosier in how they spend their sports dollars.

And they might choose football. It’s already number one.

If you’re looking for an argument here that basketball is better or more worthy of your sports dollar than football, that won’t happen here. It’s not worth the time, because there’s no reason both sports can’t be successful, and no reason why you can’t be a diehard fan of teams in both sports or of both sports in general. But the NFL and NBA are both spinning toward possible lockouts at the same time. Can you imagine a November 2011 that is bereft of any major traditional sport other than hockey and college football?

In Oklahoma, many people would imagine it and then shrug. College football is still number one here, and is likely to be for some time and perhaps forever. If the NBA is absent from Oklahoma City next fall, a lot of people will miss it. And local support, especially for a small-market franchise in a league with comparatively limited revenue sharing, is huge. People have to care enough to watch TV, listen to the radio, buy tickets, concessions and gear, and local corporations have to want to spend money to reap the benefits of association in order for the bottom line to work out. But despite the team continuing to add to the breadth and depth of its fans here, a lot more people won’t miss the Thunder if they take a season off. None of them are reading this blog, but there are still plenty of people out there who are only minimally aware of the Thunder’s presence and goings on in Oklahoma City.

The proof is in the eyeballs. Right now, the best the Thunder can do in TV is only as good as OU or OSU football does on an average Saturday. The Oklahoman reported the Thunder’s Game 6 playoffs matchup against the Lakers earned a total 21.4 rating locally across two networks, breaking the market record for a Thunder game. That game even set a national ESPN record at the time for first-round NBA playoffs broadcast. But by comparison, this year’s OU-Air Force football game pulled a 20.1 rating, and a Thursday night OSU-Texas A&M game got a 21.3. The OU-Texas game got a 39.9. It’s just not close.

Can you imagine missing a full year of KD in his prime?

The Thunder can get to that stratosphere locally if Durant and company make deep playoff runs. But it’s not far-fetched at all to think a one-season absence could kill most of the momentum the Thunder seems to have in the community. For an anecdotal analysis of the buzz in the area, compare the scrimmage at a local high school gym before this season and the one before last season. It grew from a half-filled practice to turning people away at the door in droves in one year. Another good season this year and the rise in stature would be poised to truly take off. An abrupt one-year hiatus and people are back to hollering at Landry Jones while the only NBA news they see is millionaire lawyers doing battle on behalf of a bunch of rich NBA players and richer NBA owners. Meteoric rise suspended. Maybe over, and definitely stunted.

That could — I say would — put the Thunder in a different financial position. Perhaps money-losing, perhaps not, but certainly different. The same could be said, for similar or different reasons franchise-by-franchise, for the rest of the NBA. The lockout isn’t going to make any fans or sponsors happy, and it could come at a time when families across the country are making more and harder choices about how to spend their money. If you take the NBA off the table, you make the choice for them. Giving the option back a year later probably won’t earn the sparkling season ticket renewal rates currently enjoyed by the Thunder and other teams. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in finance or economics to realize what common sense tells you: The risk, if not the certainty, of reduced gross income is real.

Would the different financial position in Oklahoma City mean the difference between being able to extend someone like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and/or Serge Ibaka or letting some or all of them walk? Without keeping guys like that, would the Thunder be able to turn lower draft picks, resourcefulness and smarts into the 10-year contender it seems like could be built around Durant if they could? Would Durant sign another extension if the Thunder’s rise tapers off and there’s no sign of more to come? Scary thoughts, with or without a lockout, but the risks involved in a lockout make them worse. Similarly scary, and myriad, thoughts surely crop up around the league when pondering a lockout’s specific effects on a given market. The NBA is filled with promising players, teams and storylines whose progress would be rudely, and perhaps irreparably, interrupted.

I don’t claim to know more than what you can read about any NBA owner or his financial situation, Clay Bennett included. And I wouldn’t mean to suggest that someone lose their own shirt on a business investment for the sake of fans. But it’s worth noting most NBA teams are either already playing in or longing for arenas funded entirely or largely by public funds. Ask Kansas City how much money it’s making on a great arena without a headline sports tenant, or at least how much money it’s not making without one. It’s not only a team’s owner’s investment where a return is at stake. People who voted against taxpayer-funded arenas have their own money in play whether they like it or not. To ignore that is deceitful.

The NBA’s worst-case scenario is the NFL figuring out its labor issues without a work stoppage that affects the season, but the NBA sinking into a lockout. It could be argued the NBA’s best-case scenario, as a business, is the opposite. If one league figures it out, it will be hailed as the smart league that doesn’t take the golden goose, or fans, for granted. The other one will be painted as the league of greedy pinheads who robbed the public, literally and figuratively. Perhaps they’ll both wise up, they’ll both get lip service for figuring things out and we’ll forget about it until the next time.

Decision time is nearing for the NBA, regardless of what the NFL does. The owners have the most control, so the buck, as far as the labor negotiations go, stops there. They have the choice to squeeze out all they can with or without the lockout. We’re all watching and hoping they don’t screw it up for the rest of us.