NBA Lockout Will Be an Economic Air Ball for Other Sports

NBA Lockout Will Be an Economic Air Ball for Other Sports
NBA Lockout Will Be an Economic Air Ball for Other Sports

Nobody wins -- except maybe basketball fans' savings accounts. Those fans and the money that the now-shuttered NBA stands to lose will not migrate to another sport.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will remain on the sidelines. Spectators will take a long timeout.

Sure, there are alternatives but ...

College basketball? Rah rah, sis boom nah.

Hockey? The thought leaves Andrew Zimbalist cold.

Zimbalist, a noted sports economist at Smith College, says other games might see small bumps in attendance and TV ratings, but not enough to make a difference. Many fans already pressed by the ailing economy will simply sit out the lost season.

"Given the economic circumstance, people might say this is a blessing, telling themselves 'I can't afford it anyway,'" Zimbalist said.

The fate of the entire NBA season plunged into doubt Monday when players rejected the owners' latest bargaining proposal and announced they were suing the league. Hundreds of games have already been cancelled due to the lockout, and hope is fading for a resolution.

No New Ice Age

The National Hockey League is by far the smallest of the major U.S. sports leagues, so any chance to expand its brand is usually welcomed.

Without the popular Lakers and their star, Kobe Bryant, hogging all the attention in L.A., the NHL's Los Angeles Kings are enjoying a monopoly as the lone tenant of the Staples Center, the arena they normally share with the Lakers and Clippers.

Chris McGowan, the Kings' chief operating officer, said he disliked using the term 'opportunity' to describe the potential to capitalize on another sport's problems, because the NHL will face its own contract confrontation after the season. "The best thing we can do to grab new fans is to provide an entertaining and contending team combined with quality customer service," he said.

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The NHL was the last major league to lose a season to labor strife, in 2004-05. The impact then on NBA attendance was minimal, according to reports. In fact, fans' overall disgust with pro sports at the time might have decreased interest in basketball. In hockey-crazy Toronto, the NBA's Raptors did not have the NHL's Maple Leafs to contend with during the lockout, but they drew fewer fans than in the previous year, according to the Denver Post. Even the 2004-05 Lakers, coming off an appearance in the NBA Finals, experienced an attendance drop without the hockey Kings in action.

Hockey's power play on the major winter-sport dollar probably won't lead to greater popularity this time around, Zimbalist said, because of the demographic divide between NBA and NHL fans. Besides, hockey's no bargain, with an average ticket price of more than $51, compared to the NBA's $48, according to the Team Marketing Report.

A few hoops fans might turn to tennis, golf or European soccer on television, he added, or perhaps spend the savings on consumer goods such as iPhones. "It's possible that the money could be widely diffused among other entertainment options," he said.

Back to School Sales

College basketball fits the bill as a cheaper sport alternative. It's also a more natural outlet for NBA fans -- it is, after all, the same game.

St. John's University often plays in the same building as the NBA's New York Knicks -- the newly renovated Madison Square Garden. The school took a step toward returning to prominence by making the NCAA tournament last season, and it has a charismatic coach in Steve Lavin. Tickets are reasonably priced, too. Seats for St. John's Thursday game against 16th-ranked Arizona at the Garden were going for $15 on StubHub early Tuesday, compared to the Knicks' average of $89.

DailyFinance asked the school if it had a plan to win over some of those left out in the cold by the NBA. "We would certainly welcome NBA and all New York sports fans to come to Madison Square Garden ... to experience St. John's basketball games," replied Chris Monasch, St. John's athletics director. "St. Johns is collaborating with the Garden staff to promote ticket sales."

But the NBA-to-college transition is a tough one for many hardcore pro hoops aficionados. In Los Angeles, Gary Romanik, a Lakers season ticket holder, has access to UCLA and USC college basketball, but they might as well be playing in another state. Romanik is ready to take the season off. "It is a great opportunity to reduce my entertainment expenses while I attempt to start or buy a business," he said.

Any sport courting a broader audience in the face of the NBA shutdown will require a subtle strategy, sports economist Zimbalist advised. That means raising positive awareness by promoting its own brand, not referring to the lockout. "That shows weakness," he said. "Fans can figure it out for themselves."