- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fact: Somebody somewhere likely is concerned — nay, downright annoyed — that National Basketball Association team owners and players are mired in an ongoing collective-bargaining dispute that forced league commissioner David Stern to cancel the first two weeks of the upcoming season and could result in additional missed games.

Also fact: Despite working in a medium in which call-in verbal venting is both accepted and encouraged, sports talk radio host Steve Czaban has yet to hear from anyone with full blown angina. Or even mild indigestion.

“It’s not just that the phones aren’t burning down about the NBA lockout,” said Mr. Czaban, a host for ESPN 980 and Yahoo! Sports radio. “It’s that if I were to try a call-in segment on it — Are you upset? Is this fair? — people would start calling in angry, asking, ‘Why are you talking about this?’

“The needle is barely twitching on the give-a-[darn] meter. If I were an NBA owner or David Stern or anyone involved in the league, I would be very concerned about that.”

Coming off its most successful season in recent memory, professional basketball faces a work stoppage problem: Specifically, the NBA’s absence is being met with responses ranging from lukewarm disappointment to outright apathy, the cultural equivalent of a collective yawn and shoulder shrug.

Dirk Nowitzki was named the MVP of the NBA Finals in June as his Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat, but he and his teammates will have to wait to open defense of their NBA title as labor negotiations grind on. The question is, how many sports fans care if the players ever get back on the court? (Associated Press)
Dirk Nowitzki was named the MVP of the NBA Finals in June ... more >

In Los Angeles — home to the Lakers, a widely popular and successful franchise featuring superstar player Kobe Bryant — veteran sports columnist Bill Plaschke recently wrote that “the league might be missing games. But we’re not.”

On ESPN — a sports media colossus that regularly broadcasts NBA games and seldom adopts a less-is-more approach to coverage — lockout stories have taken a back seat to the current Major League Baseball playoffs, as well as college and professional football.

In Sacramento, Calif. — a one-team professional sports city that despite economic woes recently scraped together enough public and private money to keep the NBA’s Kings from bolting to Anaheim — sportswriter Tom Couzens asserted that “canceling eight games isn’t nearly enough. How about canceling 20 games — permanently? And some playoff games, too?”

Online, the Twitter handle @NoNBALockout has 47 followers, while an anti-lockout petition has 29 signatories. A Facebook group calling for fans to protest the lockout by boycotting eventual games has 18 members — 83 fewer than a group for adult kickball.

In the Washington area, local lawyer Robin Ficker once was dubbed the NBA’s top fan by former player and television commentator Charles Barkley — in part because Mr. Ficker was an accomplished heckler once featured in Sports Illustrated, in part because he attended every Washington Wizards game for 12 consecutive seasons.

Today, Mr. Ficker regularly watches professional basketball on television and still considers himself a serious fan. Nevertheless, he’s sanguine about the sport’s unplanned absence.

“I’m not worried, even though I don’t expect them to play games this year,” said Mr. Ficker, 68, who lives in Boyds. “As a matter of fact, it will probably do me some good. I’ll work out more than I usually do. Become more heart-healthy instead of sitting on my rear end in front of the TV set.”

Why the seeming indifference, summarized last month when ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy stated during a radio interview that “very few people care about the NBA lockout”?

Start with this: Professional basketball isn’t professional football. The National Football League has a stranglehold on the public’s sporting imagination; with the possible exception of college football in a handful of Southeastern Conference cities, everything else is fighting for second place.

Case in point? The NBA reportedly brings in about $930 million annually in total national television rights, hundreds of games split across multiple networks. By contrast, the NFL earns a reported $1.9 billion a year from ESPN to broadcast Monday Night Football — making 17 prime-time pro football games more valuable than all of pro basketball’s national programming.

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