- 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.

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.

Similarly, the first round of the 2010 pro football draft — featuring former college players in business suits walking across a stage — drew more viewers than a concurrent Chicago Bulls-Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game featuring stars Derrick Rose and LeBron James playing actual basketball.

When a recent lockout threatened to disrupt the current NFL season, it prompted a nationwide “Save Our Season” campaign from the Washington-based fan advocacy group Sports Fans Coalition, ‘round-the-clock media coverage to rival Ted Koppel on the Iranian hostage crisis and months of sports-talk radio angst.

“I noticed a panic during the NFL lockout — people didn’t think college football would be able to replace it,” said Kyle Weidie, the founder of TruthAboutIt.net, a Washington Wizards website. “The NBA is different. You have basketball junkies who want to match, but they’re not so much panicked as disappointed.

“If they’re deprived of basketball, they can more readily turn to the college game. Or just watch the NFL. A lot of basketball fans are football fans, too.”

Therein lies another reason for NBA lockout quietude: Currently, sports fans have plenty of other viewing options. The Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing. Football is under way. So is professional hockey. College basketball is just around the corner, and even the professional soccer season is still going on.

According to former NBA and University of Maryland basketball player Laron Profit, interest in the pro game typically spikes between the NBA All-Star Game in February and the league’s playoffs in June.

“With the NFL, there’s only 16 games in a season, so the time frame is shorter,” Mr. Profit said. “There’s more sense of urgency for fans. NBA fans tend to say, ‘Hey, after the All-Star Break is when I start watching.’

“If this thing drags on [and] you lose that [NBA] Christmas Day game or more, you’ll see the fans react and get antsy. Last year’s playoffs were as anticipated and exciting as we’ve seen for a long time. Lose that, and that’s when the casual fan will be like, ‘Hey, what is going on here?’”

Mr. Czaban said that missing NBA games is easier to swallow for sports fans than missing NFL games because the latter league is far more woven into the fabric of social life.

Last year, wagering on football reportedly accounted for 43 percent of the $2.76 billion bet in Nevada sports books. Yearly illegal wagering on the NFL alone has been estimated in the $100 billion-plus range. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 30 million Americans played fantasy football last year — a 54 percent increase from 2008.

Put another way: An NBA game is something you watch or attend after work. An NFL game is an event.

“There are people who plan their fall weekends around going to the games with tailgate buddies and friends,” Mr. Czaban said. “People plan out-of-state trips to go home and see family. They were sitting around this summer going, ‘I would like to buy a ticket back to Denver and see the Broncos play, but I don’t know with the lockout.’”

Ironically, professional basketball’s hoopus interruptus comes on the heels of a renaissance season. James’ decision to leave Cleveland for Miami as a free agent last summer was a major national news story, likeable young stars such as Rose and former Montrose Christian player Kevin Durant endeared themselves to fans, and television ratings rose across the board, culminating in the third-highest-rated NBA finals game in a decade.

Bleacher Report basketball columnist Nathaniel Friedman — who writes under online pen name “Bethlehem Shoals” — worries that NBA lockout apathy could morph into greater apathy for the sport itself.

“People always like to talk about how the NBA isn’t popular and only NBA diehards will miss these early games,” he said. “But that’s not true. [Casual fans] get excited for the first month of the season, and then the last. [The league] is missing its first chance to hook people.

“People want to see what happens with the [Miami] Heat, if the Lakers are too old, how good the [Oklahoma City] Thunder will be, what will happen with the [New York] Knicks. This is a bad year for the NBA to not be able to milk itself for all it is worth.”

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