Blakely: NBA labor battle alienating fans

Blakely: NBA labor battle alienating fans
August 30, 2011, 8:46 pm
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By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn
When the Miami Heat fell short of winning an NBA title last spring, they became the butt of many jokes as folks remembered the bold proclamations about multiple titles coming to South Beach, 'The Decision' television special (already spoofed too many times to remember), and of course, the pyrotechnic show they put on before they laced up for their first practice.

Say what you want, but all that adulation and attention did something we had not seen before and may not ever see again.

The NBA free agency period for the first time since, well, ever, had the kind of cross-the-market appeal and relevancy that generated a tremendous amount of interest for the Heat and the league as a whole.

We call that Good For Business, folks.

Comcast SportsNet, the flagship station of the Boston Celtics, set a number of ratings records this past season.

In fact, eight of the Network's top 10-rated Celtics games all-time, are from this past season.

That strong current of interest in the C's as well as the rest of the league, seemed to flow into the playoffs, with the NBA bandwagon busting at the seams following the Dallas Mavericks' first NBA title.

But with the labor stalemate between the players' union and the owners showing no signs of ending anytime soon, building off that end-of-last-season momentum is about as likely as 5-foot-5 Earl Boykins becoming the league's next rebounding champion.

Both sides are expected to gather this week, which will be only the second official pow-wow between them since the July 1 lockout kicked in.

The issues that these two sides have to iron out are long, lengthy and painful to endure for all involved.

And while there may not be a pecking order in terms of what has to be agreed upon first, addressing free agency might be the best tourniquet for the hemorrhaging that the NBA is sure to experience if games are lost.

"We created a lot of interest last year in the season that we had," Mo Evans, Vice President of the NBA Players' Association, told NBA.com recently. "One of the reasons we were able to do that was because of the free agency frenzy that went into the summer. So we need to ease restricted free agency and allow players to have more mobility and have each market to have the opportunity to gather and sign multiple free agents and compete."

It sounds good in theory.

I mean, other than those in Mickey Mouse-ville, who wouldn't mind seeing Orlando's Dwight Howard donning a different colored jersey next year?

But there's a Shaquille O'Neal-sized red flag to this idea, one that will make owners hesitant to open up the free agency floodgates any more than they were last season.

One of the issues that a number of NBA teams had with the way the Heat was assembled, was how the power to negotiate player movement was slipping through the fingers of ownership and GMs, and into the firm grip of players and their respective agents.

Any move that would allow free agency to become even more widely available, would give the players and their reps even more power than they currently have.

And when you look at the issues that the owners are -- so far at least -- not budging on, it'll be difficult for the players union to convince them that allowing more free agency movement is a good idea.

Remember, folks: You're going to hear a lot of talk about the need to restructure contracts, tweak the business model to guarantee owners will profit, as well as reduce the salary cap.

And it all boils down one thing . . . power.

Owners feel the players have too much. The players, obviously, feel differently.

The owners point to 22 teams losing money. The player's union see that as Creative Bookkeeping 101.

At this point, nobody knows -- not the players or owners, and certainly not the fans -- what it's going to take to get a deal done.

But figuring out a way to quickly get back their lost fans needs to be a priority.

We live in a sports world where more and more fans pledge their allegiance to players, not the teams they play for.

That's why you're just as likely to find a Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant jersey in the crowds when they're at home, as you would on the road.

When you have that kind of interest, that kind of momentum, the idea of not playing games seems just stupid.

Let's hope that the owners and players remember this next time they sit down to negotiate. Because for all their talk about what they don't want to give up in a new deal, the most precious commodity in all this -- fans -- appears to be an afterthought.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn