As always, the small fry lose out
They would never come out and admit it because the NBA is an extremely polished PR machine. But only a few months back the league was selling hate and quite happy to do it as well. When we last saw the NBA they were enjoying their best ratings for a finals series in 12 years. Even casual fans were watching the Miami Heat lose to the Dallas Mavericks in six games and the reason was simple: they hated the Heat. After LeBron James was featured in a one-hour prime-time TV special where he announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to go and play in Miami with star-laden buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the great hate was on. James and his team became the type of anti-hero the public can never get enough of hating. The fact that LeBron's team made it all the way to the finals and looked for all intents and purposes like they were going to win it before the Mavericks somehow rallied, made the whole finals all the more irresistible.
But then in an instant all that enormously profitable hate was undone when the NBA decided to lock out its players and shut down the league. Suddenly, no one cared enough about the Heat to hate them. They were just indifferent. After all, how could they hate LeBron if he wasn't playing?
Negotiations became extremely tense and often personal. Deadlines and ultimatums were issued by NBA commissioner David Stern and routinely ignored by the players' union. Rumours of dissension in the ranks on both the players and management sides were rife, regular-season games were cancelled and legal action was imminent. But finally this week a breakthrough emerged and an agreement was reached that will see a truncated 66-game schedule. And there it will be, gift-wrapped under the tree on Christmas Day, the first games of something called the NBA.
I don't want to know the specific details of the deal because I don't care. I'm also saddened to see the sports media indulge in their predictable behaviour by choosing winners and losers from three sectors: the owners, the players or the fans. There is no scorecard for something like this. A major part of the lockout was centred around the fact the league had to implement controls to stop owners from spending too much money on contracts. In essence, help us from ourselves. But guess what, they are still rich. Granted some are dumb as dirt but they are rich nonetheless, so I'm not sure how the owners can be called losers.
The players are still going to get exorbitant amounts of dough as well. Even the minimum salary will be around US$500,000 so that's hardly losers' money. And this whole escapade cost the fans absolutely nothing. In fact, it saved most of them some money because it means there are 16 less games to buy tickets for and most fans who can afford NBA tickets can presumably also afford to feed and clothe their children so now there's more dough for household necessities and maybe even that long-delayed vacation trip abroad.
If you really insist on finding a loser then listen to what Stern admitted was a large part of the reason for a deal. 'We talked about not just our teams and our players, but literally thousands of people who are dependent upon the playing of our games at arenas, at parking lots, at restaurants around the stadium,' he said.
These are the people - not the players, not the owners and not the fans sitting in the seats - whose livelihoods have been seriously compromised. I'm assuming most of the folks who park the cars, sell the beers and grill the hot dogs are not doing it because they are flush with disposable income. And I am also assuming the NBA knows the job market in the US is beyond desperate. There are millions of largely unskilled labourers looking for work right now and I am sure that adding to those numbers was not the NBA's intent when it decided to lock out the players. But that's exactly what they did, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
I'm not advocating an 'Occupy the NBA movement' here. But the league proudly trumpet their 'NBA Cares' programme, which they claim is their global community outreach initiative that addresses important social issues. So here's a perfect opportunity. The NBA is way too smart and PR savvy to think fans will just automatically show up at games again as if nothing happened.
People are upset at billionaires fighting millionaires for a bigger slice of an enormously lucrative pie. If teams were to somehow raise wages a bit or kick in an extra bonus to arena workers and support staff, it may be huge. They certainly have the resources to say: look, we know you took a big hit financially so here's a little something extra to help you through it.
If not, there could be some serious hate directed at the NBA. But this time it won't be the type of hate you can sell.