NBA lockout may echo in empty seats

Whether or not season is cancelled Jan. 7, leaguewill take time to regain fans.

For a sport accustomed to slam dunks and fast breaks, America's top professional basketball league looks set to do quite the opposite: nothing at all.

Barring a dramatic turn of events, the National Basketball Association (NBA) will vote Jan. 7 to cancel its season. That would be a first for the league. Indeed, it would be the first time any major American sport has canceled an entire season because of failed labor negotiations.

Even if team owners and players manage a last-minute compromise to save the season, the popular sport will likely learn a new lesson of the 1990s sports scene: These days, fans hold a grudge.

In a time when many fans say the wonder of professional sports too often is buried under mountains of money, patience for athletes and owners squabbling over the spoils of a multibillion-dollar industry has run to an all-time low. Today, fans are registering their displeasure with their pocketbooks - by not buying tickets.

Major League Baseball learned this lesson following its 1994 strike. And while observers say fans will eventually come back to the NBA, the league may find that its rebound takes longer than either the owners or players are banking on.

"Even if they have a season, they are going to suffer serious backlash," says Kenneth Shropshire, professor of legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia. "It's just going to be hard to run the business next year."

Money lies at the heart of the dispute. The sums are so vast that even die-hard fans are disgusted. "There's so much greed on both sides," says David Bennett, a longtime follower of the Boston Celtics. "I am a sports nut, but I just think they are taking advantage of everybody.... I doubt I will ever pay for another basketball ticket."

Owners and the players union have not been able to reach a settlement on how they will divide the sport's $2 billion-a-year revenues. "It's kind of astounding to fans," says Jeffrey Rosenthal, sports law specialist at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, a law firm with its main office in New York. "With this much money out there, the parties can see so much money go down the drain."

The league's problems with fans run deeper than surprise and anger, though. Many seem to have lost interest altogether - a sharp contrast with fan reactions to the recent baseball strike and the strike-shortened football season a decade ago.

"People - for once - do not seem to care," says Paul Anderson, assistant director of National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

When USA Today surveyed more than 3,800 sports fans recently, half said they were apathetic while only 8 percent said they couldn't wait for the games to start up. Fan reaction could change once the pro football season ends soon, but many say they are contented to watch college basketball.

Then there's the baseball experience. While fans returned quickly after previous strikes, the work stoppage that killed the 1994 World Series caused many spectators to give up on the sport. Baseball saw an unprecedented decline in attendance the following season. It took a dramatic two-man chase for the single-season home-run record this year to lift the cloud.

"What's so shocking about this lockout [in basketball] is that after the example of baseball and the losses that baseball suffered, that this could happen," says Mr. Anderson of Marquette.

In addition, the league could suffer a double blow if Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport, decides to end his career. "If you have this labor strife ... and also have Michael Jordan retire, can [basketball] handle the double-negative impact?" Professor Shropshire asks.

Both sides in the dispute seem resigned to rough waters ahead. David Stern, the league's longtime commissioner, is now openly threatening to use replacement players next year if owners can't reach agreement with the players union.

"It's not necessarily a pretty sight early on," he told reporters in a conference call. "But obviously, if we have to rebuild the league, we will rebuild the league."

The main sticking points in the negotiations involve the teams' inability to cap salaries, questions about free agency, and the battle over how much of league revenue should be given to the players. The players are set to meet today in New York to discuss the owners' final offer.

THE impasse marks the end of a remarkable run for the NBA. In the early 1980s, the league was playing before sparse crowds and unable to snare a live TV broadcast of its championship. So players and owners forged an agreement to work together and split the revenues. The formula worked so well that basketball became a labor-relations model. It had never seen a strike, while baseball, football, and hockey all endured difficult labor disputes.

But a contentious contract deal signed in 1995 set the stage for this year's lockout.

Eventually, most observers expect fans will forget the current contract squabbles. "The key is what happens after" a contract is reached, says Joe Fleming, a management labor and employment lawyer in Miami. "Then you have really great exciting games. The sports fans get very excited and forgive."

Fan loyalty revolves around forgiving a team's mistakes in order to cheer them on tomorrow, he says. But this time, the rebound could take awhile.

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