The National Basketball Players Association announced this week it had rejected the latest offer regarding its collective bargaining agreement and now it will be up to the courts to decide the fate of this year’s NBA season. Like the NFL lockout earlier this year, the NBA and the Players Association are arguing about who should get the biggest piece of the pie. When are professional sports going to learn that these lockouts are a huge PR nightmare? Not only are they losing fans and affecting thousands that depend on the business of the games, but in this oversaturated sports landscape, where is the guarantee that everyone will come back when they do return?
And this is coming from a huge NBA fan. I grew up on the San Antonio Spurs and spent several sleepless nights in Boston rooting for my team during the NBA’s last lockout season when the Spurs won their first Championship.
A fellow PR colleague asked me recently, “Who will care if the NBA doesn’t return?” And that’s the key question. Even die-hard NBA fan Bill Simmons told the SportsBusiness Journal’s “Sports Media & Technology” Conference attendees last week that he doesn’t think anyone will care if the lockout gets settled. Simmons continued saying, “You’ve got pro football and college. You have the holidays coming up. Nobody is going around thinking ‘I can’t believe the NBA’s not here.’ ” And he’s one of the sport’s biggest proponents.
And while I disagree with Simmons that fans simply don’t care (ask the thousands in the seven NBA-only markets like San Antonio if they care), I do think he’s got a point that with so many other sports options, will consumers truly miss the NBA? Probably not. They will find other ways to spend the money they would’ve otherwise spent on tickets, concessions and merchandise. And that’s where the NBA and NBPA have a PR crisis on their hands. The NBA is one of the best-marketed sports leagues in the world and has done so much to build up its brand globally and the brands of its players. Yet, it is willing to put all that at risk. And for what? Billions of dollars that they can’t figure out how to divvy up? A 50/50 split isn’t fair? Try explaining that to your average fan who is struggling to pay his or her mortgage or find a job. That’s not an easy sell. Not when this is the third sports lockout in the past six years and by now, everyone has lost sympathy for professional athletes and team owners.
While personally I’ll be sad if there isn’t an NBA season, the true losers in this scenario aren’t the players or the team owners, but the thousands of arena workers, local businesses and team staff that have no say in the lockout and who are affected by this decision. They are the ones who do truly care about the lockout because for them, it’s their livelihood.
Tell us what you think: Do you think fans will come back to the NBA? Why?