Commentary

NBA lockout risk: public ridicule

Nothing else worked. Maybe the owners and players will react to the scorn of the fans

Originally Published: October 13, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

The bond market indicator that has predicted every recession since 1970 is forecasting a 60 percent chance of the economy having another contraction within the next 12 months. Moody's Analytics says there's a 40 percent chance the U.S. will tumble back into the depths of a recession within the next six months. The unemployment rate, some analysts say, is likely to remain above 6 percent until 2015. The hourly pay of people who are employed can't keep pace with inflation. The most recent drop in household income is the largest in several decades and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has caused a "significant reduction in the American standard of living."

So with that as the economic backdrop, the NBA has decided to sit it out for a while because the owners and players can't agree on how to split up $4.3 billion. It's difficult to imagine that folks who live in constant fear of losing their jobs, of not being able to make their mortgage payments or pay their kids' tuition or do anything with their money beyond what is absolutely necessary have the stomach for this self-indulgent behavior. The country is in no mood for the NBA's stupid dispute; and if the lockout lasts past Christmas and into the time when people expect to see professional basketball, which is quite possible, the bet here is the owners and players are going to face a level of disdain that could embarrass the two sides into a settlement and haunt the league for years.

Right now, it's clear that what anybody, even their patrons, thinks of them is of next to zero concern for both sides. Each side is right, don't you know? Each wants to win. There are owners who would rather miss most of the season than settle now. There are players, millionaires, who are convinced they have some mysterious leverage that will dissuade owners who are billionaires. For now, neither is budging. Two weeks of games have already been canceled and very likely another month of games, at least, will be kicked.

So what pressure, in addition to loss of money, is going to move one side or the other off its position?

For starters, how about public ridicule?

The NBA, for obvious and understandable reasons, is jealous of the NFL. Pro football has revenue streams (beginning with network broadcast contracts), an economic system, television ratings and an obsessive relationship with its fans that professional basketball will never have. The NFL also had the good sense, made easier to exercise by league-wide profitability, to not let its labor war earlier this year lead to the cancellation of regular-season games. The NBA's worst labor nightmare is for the NFL to have settled and to then itself miss games. The gulf between the popularity of two leagues is likely to grow even wider as a result, and very likely contribute to the wrath that will come down on the NBA if it doesn't come to some sort of resolution soon.

[+] Enlargejob seekers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaHow do you suppose these job seekers in Southfield, Mich., feel about that $4.3 billion pie at stake in the NBA lockout?

When the NFL was out of business, with the season approaching, fans overwhelmingly wanted only one thing: the return of the product. They wanted football, by whatever means necessary and at any cost. The loss of one week of regular-season football would have been received like a national emergency.

Professional basketball has no such cachet, whether the owners and players know it or not. The patrons will miss it, tens of thousands of people in most NBA cities, hundreds of thousands of people in the big markets like Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. But not tens of millions, not everybody. People aren't going to clamor for basketball in the same way they do football. But they will trash basketball, especially basketball players. NBA owners are going to spend the next weeks and perhaps months telling you how little pro basketball players are worth; then, once they get a deal, be faced with the task of trying to build 'em back up again for the purpose of public consumption.

And there's always the complex and even more divisive element of race. Both the NFL and NBA are predominantly black. But the NFL has never been perceived as a "black league" because it has white megastars in players such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and coaches such as Bill Belichick. The NBA, on the other hand, has been perceived exactly as a black league for 30 years, even when it featured the likes of Larry Bird and Bill Walton. A championship team led by a blond, blue-eyed German, Dirk Nowitzki, isn't the same as having an iconic white American superstar on the level of Bird or Jerry West. Nor is a coach in the mold of Phil Jackson or Pat Riley.

And while every generation moves further away from stereotypes, more quickly in sports than just about any other industry, the fact is that NBA players with their guaranteed contracts and lavish lifestyles are the objects of derision much more often than their helmeted and more anonymous peers in the NFL -- who, except for those quarterbacks, make quite a bit less. And besides, people of any race and nationality more closely identify with people who look like them.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern & Adam Silver
Neilson Barnard/Getty ImagesStep right up, hoops fans, because David Stern/Adam Silver press conferences are as good as the action gets in the NBA right now.

Even so, the NBA has always struggled with perception issues; a second work stoppage in 12 years, particularly if it's another long one, isn't going to help. And unlike in 1999 -- when the country was in a boom cycle during which the prevailing theme to everyday life was that everybody should "get paid" -- getting paid now, if it takes a public fight to do it, will seem mostly distasteful.

While owners and players alike surely feel they're not going to let public sentiment dictate their position, and perhaps rightfully so, it's hard to imagine that many people have the stomach for the ins and outs of this fight, especially not in the days after President Obama called the economic state of affairs "an emergency." We're talking, remember, about "middle class" people who, if they can still afford to, like to attend NBA games and buy stars' jerseys for their kids. They couldn't possibly be in the mood for hearing about salary caps and luxury taxes and the unacceptability of "settling for" a 50-50 split.

A nation riding on an economic rocket ship in 1999 might let it slide without much resentment, but it's hard to imagine any of this will sit well on the brink of another recession, three years removed from the last one.

The bet here is that owners and players will be shaken out of their complacency when they face an angry public that not only doesn't demand the return of pro basketball but also tells both parties, To hell with your product. That's the risk of this disregard for the economic plight of everyday folk who can no longer afford their ticket prices.

NBA Fan
AP Photo/J Pat CarterThis fan's sign pretty much says it all at the South Florida All-Star Classic NBA basketball game in Miami last weekend.

Don't get me wrong. Consumers of sport are never enough of a single mind or purpose to organize their reaction. Fan boycotts will never work because owners and players aren't thinking of the patrons, anyway, when they're trying to figure out how to divvy up $4 billion or so. This time, though, the disdain for both sides and the expression of it could be organic, a reaction that grows out of, well, the audacity of two filthy rich parties to fight over so much money at a time when so many people depended on to consume that very product have so little themselves.

At some point, probably when the NFL regular season starts to wind down, people are going to notice the absence of pro basketball. And even if they don't much like or care about the NBA, they'll weigh in with their scorn for the lockout. And at that point, which will also coincide with players missing paychecks and owners' failure to fill empty arenas, both parties will realize that not as many people care as they'd like.

Who knows? Common sense could rule the day. Sadly, given the gulf that both the owners and players described when talks broke off on Monday, that day could very well come later rather than sooner. And the damage to pro basketball, owners and players, will be inescapable and on both their heads.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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