NBA needs more than T-shirts to win back fans

A prominent sign on the window of the Charlotte Coliseum where the NBA Hornets play reads, "NO WEAPONS ALLOWED ON PROPERTY."

Words to ponder. After all, when the National Basketball Association finally started its 1998-99 season the other evening, failing to play any games in '98 because of the owner lockout, it was 94 days tardy. The delay was because owners and players couldn't agree on how to divvy up several billion dollars each year in revenue. A central issue involved bitter negotiations over whether each team's salary cap should be $30 million or $32 million. They settled on $30 mil.

These are issues that don't fascinate Joe Q. Fan, who is more worked up over $25 or more for one game ticket, $5 parking, $4 hot dogs, and $2.50 soft drinks. Heck, all we understand is stars make $10 million to $20 million or so in a year and we working stiffs have to labor two, even three years to make that much. Not fair.

Therefore, the NBA knew only one thing for sure: It had absolutely no idea how fans would respond. Might they be really steamed and either stay away in droves or show up armed?

Past being an excellent prologue in sports, NBA execs did know that after the baseball strike in 1995, fans went from being upset to being furious to not going to games. Despite all the hoopla over the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase last season, baseball is still involved in difficult fence-mending with millions of the disaffected.

As the 29 NBA teams work through their 50-game schedules (normally, it's 82), fans are not sure what they think.

Trying to buy fans for a meal and some songs

On opening night here in Charlotte, N.C., for the game against the Philadelphia 76ers, a strange sort of subdued feeling prevailed. There were plenty of empty seats, and depressed ticket scalpers outside were accepting substantially less than face value - one group of four $25 tickets was going for $20 each.

The Hornets gave each fan a T-shirt, an eclectic NBA-produced CD with songs by performers ranging from Tony Bennett to Inoj, and a coupon for reduced-price chicken dinners at Bojangles restaurants.

The owners' thinking: Give the fans anything free, and they'll forget what we did in our greed-based dispute.

We'll see.

It's the same feeling you get when someone you trusted double-crosses you, then tries to make up. You want to reconcile because you want things to be like they were, but it can be a mighty long time before suspicions abate, if ever.

It was about half time when scattered booing broke out in appraisal of the Hornets' pathetic and eventually losing efforts against Philadelphia. Charlotte played tired. Tired? They rested for the 204-day lockout. In Boston, the Celtics heard boos. In Detroit, star Grant Hill got it right when he said all fans want is for players to "play hard and win."

Precisely. Basketball fans are not driven by bargains at Bojangles. They are driven by great athletes running the floor and playing with skill as a team.

It's simple: Play well, and they'll forgive

It is an example of inept marketing when companies persist in giving away things that have nothing to do with the core product. Why do they do it? Because the core product isn't good enough. If it were, it wouldn't have to debase itself with, well, Bojangles coupons.

Fans are simple creatures: Play well, and we will forgive you. Play crummy, and we will take you to the woodshed.

Meanwhile, too much stays the same in pro hoops, which also leaves us unsettled. For example, Charles Barkley recently was fined $5,000 for screaming obscenities at the fans.

And Latrell Sprewell, who choked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, at Golden State, was traded to the New York Knicks, where he became a starter prior to being injured. The message seems to be that people get too worked up over a little choking. And so on.

The ambivalence is shown in the numbers. For a season-opening double-header, NBC turned on television sets in 5.7 million homes, which was almost 100,000 more homes than it got with its on-time opener in 1997. Nobody was smug, however, including an NBC spokesman who said that all parties know there is a lot to be done to "regain the fans." Conversely, earlier this week, the Chicago Bulls played the Los Angeles Clippers, and only 6,118 people showed up.

So, we watch, warily. Basketball is one of those distinctly American games that millions love. Still, NBA, you have tried our patience. Like a misbehaved youngster, you must make serious amends. We're waiting. We have weapons, but they are not loaded. Yet.

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