Should the NBA forfeit its season, my generation will have witnessed 2 of the 4 major US sports to lose a season due to labor disputes. The NHL lost the 2004-2005 season. Unfortunately for fans, this is a recurring trend over the last 30 years. Since 1982, all 4 major US sports have sustained work-stoppages. Baseball: 1981, 1994-1995; Football: 1982, 1987, 2011; Hockey: 1994-1995; 2004-2005; Basketball: 1998-1999, 2011-2012.*
Maybe I’m grasping here, but over the past 30 years, as we’ve seen the inequity between haves and the have-nots (or, in today’s parlance, the 1% vs the 99%) rise, it’s quite amazing how the fans, those who ultimately pay the salaries of the rich (the athletes) and the uber-wealthy (the owners) remain loyal to these non-essential industries. Perhaps there’s a story in here for an economist to see if there’s some type of connection between the rise of sports (from popularity to revenue) from the late 1970s on to to the rise in inequity.
Of course, there’s a deep connection between fan and sport. Love for a player and team connect generations, as parents and children can bond over a hot dog at baseball game or at tailgating parties at football games. But what happens when these rituals get suspended? Baseball suffered through low ratings and low ticket sales after the 1994 strike, only to pick up after the steroid-tainted home run derby season of 1998. The NHL hasn’t bounced back from its 2004-2005 season loss.
In these dark economic times, there’s somewhat of a dialectical tension occurring for fans: on one hand, sport is an escape from the troubled news of the day; on the other, it’s become cost-prohibitive for many to actually go to a sporting event. Yes, we can watch on TV or the Web or listen on radio, but there’s nothing like walking through a tunnel at your favorite stadium and seeing/smelling the greenest grass or polished hardwood. And when we see the millionaire athletes and billionaire owners squabble over economics (no matter if you agree with the players or the league) while the rest of the nation is hurting, it becomes a tough pill to swallow.
Sports are intertwined with our nation and our culture. The actors upon this great stage are heros to kids, youthful remembrances for adults. And when the producers of the play tinker with the actors, the audience gets unnerved and responds by keeping their wallet in their pants.
No matter how the NBA lockout ends, will fans come back? Yes. But it might take longer than the owners and players realize.
*years indicate work stoppages that affected seasons, as opposed to work stoppages during the season where games were eventually made up, like the 1985 MLB strike.