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NBA owners take big risk playing fans for fools

Oct 11, 2011, 3:19 AM EDT

David Stern Reuters

It would take some real fools to shut down their $4 billion a year business in the middle of the worst recession in generations because the more than $1 billion over six years they just got back from the workers was not good enough.

However, the NBA owners are not fools. They think you are.

The owners — and these lost games are on them far more than the players — think that no matter what, you’ll come back. Maybe right when the season starts (something many of us hard-core fans admit), maybe when the playoffs start, maybe in a year or two, but you’ll be back. You’ll come back fast and in large numbers, dwarfing the more than $4 billion in revenues the NBA got last season.

That is one a dangerous game they are playing.

If they get their way, the owners will get a larger share of that money you are going to spend. Make no mistake, this about money. You can call it the “system” of what kind of salary cap or luxury tax structure the league should have, but in the end it is about how much money goes into whose pocket.

Monday the first two weeks of the NBA season were canceled. We hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but most of the people I spoke with inside and around the league expected we would end up here. Everybody hoped against hope the common sense would ride to the rescue and the league wouldn’t shut its doors after a season of unprecedented momentum. But nobody is surprised.

We’re not going to have NBA basketball until Nov. 15 at the earliest, and possibly much later as both sides seem to be digging in now for a long haul.

But the owners are playing a risky game. One that could damage their franchises and product more than they can imagine. More than they seem to understand.

This is about the owners — enough of them are pushing for radical changes to the league’s financial structure that lost games seemed inevitable from the start. They won the lockout but want a route. Stern stood before the cameras and talked about how much the owners have given back — taking salary rollbacks and a hard salary cap off the table. But those were never theirs to give. They were not things the owners had, they were things they wanted. The owners paid 57 percent of their earnings to the players in the last labor deal and their first offer to the players in the new talks was 39 percent. That was unreasonable. The 47 percent they are offering now is as well. But they have the leverage and they have hardliners, so they are not giving more. Meanwhile the players are trying to stand firm at getting 53 percent.

The two sides were just a couple percentage points apart on BRI and couldn’t find a middle ground. It’s stupid the two sides talked instead about the “system issues” of the salary cap and luxury tax Monday, but that is just the owners trying to get a deal that protects them from themselves and their franchises’ poor decisions. They know they will hand out more bad contracts and want the ability to get out of them faster.

Monday night there was anger and the frustration out on the Internet when Stern walked out of a posh New York hotel Monday night and said the first two weeks of the NBA season are lost.

The owners — and the league’s players — had better pray that anger sticks around for a while. If the lockout drags out and that starts to turn to apathy, then the league is really in trouble.

Anger shows that the fans care. Love and hate are different sides of the same coin. Passion for the game, the players, and their favorite franchises has fans shelling out big money and screaming at their televisions for games in February. They want basketball — few fans really care how the BRI is split or how regressive the luxury tax is. They just want their basketball.

But as this lockout drags out that will start to change and the league will pay for it.

Hardcore fans will come back. But the longer this drags out the more money that casual fans spend on the NBA will find its way into other entertainment ventures. And those fans will be slow to come back.

The longer the NBA stays locked out the more apathy sets in among the fan base. And that is far worse for the league and revenues than anything. Hate of the Heat and LeBron James fueled record ratings last year, apathy kills that momentum.

And all that revenue the owners are fighting to get will evaporate (within weeks), as the fans are slow to return.

It’s all foolish.

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