Five months ago, the only news from the National Basketball Assn. was reports about who was shouting the loudest at bargaining sessions between stubborn owners and surly players. As the lockout stretched on, there were dire predictionS about the future of the league. The popular wisdom was that the NBA would be on its back for a couple of seasons at least. Wrong--by a couple of seasons.
As it turns out, fans almost beat the players back to the arenas, and on most fronts, the league has nearly returned to pre-lockout prosperity. Three teams sold out every home game in the abbreviated, 50-game season. Leaguewide, attendance slipped just 2%, and nearly half the teams averaged larger crowds this season than last. The red-hot Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and Golden State Warriors posted double-digit percentage gainsin attendance.
TIGER TAMER. The TV audience came back, too. Ratings were supposed to crash in the postlockout, post-Michael Jordan era. But on May 15, a Los Angeles Lakers-Houston Rockets playoff game pulled in three times as many viewers as golf's Byron Nelson Classic--with Tiger Woods in the hunt. Overall, ratings for the second weekend of the playoffs were up a robust 17% over the first.
It may even be a good time to own an NBA franchise. So advises John A. Moag Jr., managing director of Legg Mason's Sports Industry Group. In a newsletter for prospective investors in pro-sports franchises, he recently rated the league a solid "buy."
In spite of the lockout? Nah, because of it. The new six-year collective-bargaining agreement reins in player salaries--no more $126 million bonanzas for youngsters like Kevin Garnett--and should help the bottom line. Not bad, considering the NBA was ringing up 44% gross profit margins before the lockout.
Sure, problems remain. It's no longer as cool to wear game jerseys--and merchandise sales show it. Also, the hottest franchise ever, Jordan's Chicago Bulls, has passed into the record books. After a horrible season, the team fears an exodus of season-ticket customers, with up to 25% expected not to renew.
Overall, however, basketball is back. Once again, the Chicken Littles failed to take into account a fundamental truth: Sports fans have short memories. Or perhaps an infinite capacity for forgiveness. Once the games return, so does the excitement and so do the fans. Diehards want to remember the electricity when Mark McGwire hit home run No. 62--not the trash talk between owners and players during the baseball strike. That stuff gets worked out.
So next time owners lock the doors and players take up picket signs, don't listen to the doom-and-gloomers. Just hope things get settled fast so we can get back in line for our hot dogs and programs.