Can small-market teams survive a lockout?

Can small-market teams survive a lockout?


Can small-market teams survive a lockout?

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As the first days of the NBA lockout go by, I am reminded of the answer that Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant offered when they baited him with the question of what there is to do for fun in Oklahoma.

Allegedly, Durant mumbled “nothing” and intentionally walked in the opposite direction of the bait-and-switch-words tacticians to avoid having to deal with journalist wannabes.

Little did he know how prophetic he would be and how that single word is now echoing in the locker rooms and arena of a now-empty Oklahoma City Arena.

The National Basketball Association has effectively locked out players to the point that even their pics and bios on are ghosts of a bygone era, begging the question – did they lock them out, or break up with them?

Sadly, an era of successful reign is screeching to an unwelcome, but expected end. An era that demonstrated an extreme rise in popularity, but one where 22 owners claim to be ‘in the red’ because players got overstuffed paychecks and took home 57 percent of BRI, the villainous pot at the end of the rainbow known as ‘basketball-related income.’

While millionaires in the NBA (and NFL) quibble for 2-4 hours over each’s “fair share” of a pot of money we can barely fathom, people in small markets like Portland, Memphis, Milwaukee and Charlotte are now forced to figure out what to do with the Sundays and evenings once occupied with 3-4 hours of their favorite team(s) in action.

Yes, Sundays may once again become a day spent with one’s family. Once more, the entire brood at the dinner table … at the same time.

After all, there’s only so much American Idol, Wipeout, Man vs. Food and Modern Family we can take.

And while that’s all just tongue-in-cheek humor to get most of us through this trying time, it is true… more will be home. Because it’s not just the athletes who are locked out.

When the doors are locked, so are the jobs of concessionaires, ushers, ticket takers, and the numerous people that never show up in the statistics, yet are integral to whether you and I are treated to a complete ball game night in and night out.

Numerous people who work in every arena will be without jobs, forced to look for something new thanks to the whims of a bevy of millionaires. I don’t know too many people that can take their pizza-making, peanut-throwing or $7-a-beer selling skills to the Euroleague as their position fades in front of their eyes in Oklahoma City.

It’s been disturbingly demonstrated that they don’t matter.

What about the fans? You might remember them. They are the ones who have been there at every turn, through thick and thin, for better or worse… some through a whole lot of worse.

Many may not remember how such a work stoppage hurt baseball… America’s pastime.

But I do. I recall going to a White Sox game in the then-new Comiskey Park and being able to watch the game from a cherry seat behind home plate… not because I was dishonest and slid down to an empty seat in the third inning. But because I was actually able to get a ticket, on the spot, no scalpers or StubHub necessary, for cheap. Pennies on the dollar compared to what it was prior to that work stoppage.

And that’s Chicago… third largest city in the United States, home to two Major League Baseball franchises, Da Bears, and your Chicago Bulls.

Of course, there those that might argue that there’s plenty to do in Chicago, and they’d be correct. More activities, more job opportunities, more leagues and variety of sport to watch.

Las Vegas had to cancel its summer league, which was a nice bump in economical revenues for a city which already makes money hand over fist 24 hours a day. But don’t feel too sorry for them… all they have to do is tighten the payouts on the tables and hike up the prices in the VIP lounges at the gentlemen’s clubs.

Vegas will be fine. As will Dallas, Miami, Philly, Washington, L.A. and, of course, Chicago.

But Memphis is no Chicago or any of these other cities by any stretch of the imagination. It is 20th in size in the country. Milwaukee, Wisconsin ranks 28th; Portland, Oregon 29th and Oklahoma City checks in at No. 31. Lest we forget No. 35 Sacramento, where the team is thought so well of that they nearly moved to Anaheim as only their mayor and a couple of noteworthy sports writers fought for their very existence. Orlando is 79th, and canceled its summer league, too… but if you can’t find work and play in the ‘happiest place on earth,’ then we need to talk.

Consider that Portland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Salt Lake City (125th in population, despite the going forth and multiplication of the Mormon Church), and Memphis don’t have those same luxuries. And Milwaukee only has the Brewers… so, yeah, go ahead and lump them in with Portland, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and Memphis. San Antonio is the seventh most populous city (and NBA market), but take away their Spurs and all you have left is a three-hour drive to South Padre Island.

One can only listen to Beale Street blues for so long before they start tailoring them to “that one great year the Grizzlies had” – you remember, back in 2010-11 when attendance finally started showing some promise that Michael Heisley‘s team might not have to be the team that moves to Seattle and be renamed the ‘SuperSonics.’

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the slopes in nearby Park City can get you by for a month or two. One can always change Rip City to ‘Drip City’ and pass the time counting raindrops, and in Oklahoma City, “Thunder Up” will be replaced by “Boomer Sooner,” as the University of Oklahoma’s football team as the Sooners have already made a land run and staked a claim on the No. 1 ranking out of the gate.

But the goal isn’t to forget the Thunder, Blazers, Jazz, Spurs or Grizzlies.

Unfortunately, it could happen.

In a tough economy, people are more and more loyal to self, family and that ever-elusive constant paycheck. And when it isn’t coming from the local NBA franchise or its subsidiaries any longer, people can and will move on.

OKC’s unemployment rate is one of the best in the nation; of course, that’s before an extended lockout will cost people their aforementioned jobs. They are in the Top 15 at only 4.9 percent. Those who normally reap the benefits of Jazz games are the next closest to Oklahoma City in unemployment rate at No. 98.

So people in Dallas may have to go as far as Midland. Wizards concessionaires may have to become Congressional pages or be forced to move to Charlottesville and work games at the University of Virginia. Logan, Utah is smaller than Salt Lake, but there’s work there. And Portlanders may have to relocate to Corvallis to find stable work.

A major sports league lockout directly affects all of these people; struggling folks who rely on 3-4 games a week to supplant their Social Security or the others who need the job to feed their 3-5 children. These people aren’t fiscally able to head to St. Tropez and wait it out on an isolated tropical beach.

Most of them will never see that beach.

At this snail’s pace, they may not be able to let their children see anything more than the Playland at McDonald’s once a month.

The NBA’s players have already put $500 million on the table, only to have Commissioner David Stern all but laugh it off, calling it “modest.” The owners and the league are reportedly looking for a 30-40 percent reduction in salaries.

I see both sides of the issue, being a businessman myself and having spent the better part of the past decade in the locker rooms and ears of some of the league’s players.

From the league and owners’ perspective, they sold themselves a tad short on the last deal. Fifty seven percent for the players and 43 percent was quite a wide chasm, and a generous concession to get the rock going again for the shortened 1999 season.

They are asking for a six percent swing back in their favor, which would split BRI at 51-49 … still in the players’ favor financially.

But aren’t these the same gentlemen who have whipped out the checkbook and pen when certain names became available? Or better yet, the ones who chased these certain “overpaid” athletes? That’s where my empathy ends and reason kicks into high gear.

On the flip side, the players have it good. Many spend more money in a month – sometimes even a weekend – than most people in their team’s cities make in a year. Many, and I stress many, give back. They’re visible, they’re part of the community, and many go unheralded beyond the call of duty because a majority of media is all over the controversy, but rarely headline the positives.

Was paying Kevin Garnett, who hobbled through much of the last 12 months, $18.8 million really worth it? How about that $20.5 million paycheck Rashard Lewis got?

Kobe Bryant‘s $24.8 got spent on an early vacation, thanks to the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks … and who thinks he’s really going to be worth the $30.5 million two years from now when he can hardly get off the ground today?

About the only owner who got ROI for his $17.3 million is Mark Cuban, who now runs the risk of alienating players in what is one of the most tightly-knit NBA locker room/families in the league.

He’s an owner. He’s the “enemy.”

“We’re going to stand up for what we have to do, no matter how long it’s going to take,” Kevin Durant affirmed during a break at his basketball camp late last week in Oklahoma City.

“No matter how long the lockout’s going to take, we’re going to stand up. We’re not going to give in.”

Durant, who had plenty to do in OKC this past week, has a salary of just $5.04 million, meager compared to the aforementioned stars. Fourth highest on his team. (Don’t worry, folks, he made $14M in endorsements and bought a $1.8M condo in the same building as Dwyane Wade in Miami, too).

However, depending on how well he socked it away, he may not be able to spend as long in St. Tropez or Bermuda as Bryant, Lewis, or Garnett.

Cuban and the owners have a distinct advantage that the young and stubborn players don’t… they were all millionaires before they bought their respective franchises. They are millionaires who just happen to own a sports franchise.

Time and cash are on their side… they can wait a long, long while.

Unfortunately, the business inside and around the arenas don’t have that luxury. Many of those people will end up losing their $7.25-an-hour positions to attrition and be forced to move on faster than Art Modell in the middle of a cold Cleveland night.

Loyalties damaged, if not severed.

People are already on sports radio and Twitter in Oklahoma City declaring that if the Thunder aren’t tipping off in November, they’re “through with them.” Granted, those type of ‘fans’ probably only watch the Thunder in the postseason, still note Desmond Mason as his favorite player and couldn’t tell you where Kendrick Perkins came from.

That’s a small percentage, without doubt… or is it?

How many at home sit there thinking the same thing in Memphis, Milwaukee, Portland, Salt Lake, Charlotte or New Orleans, where attendance was already a struggle, and don’t say a word?

Certainly, NBA Cares may have to reinvent their mission, to woo back those who chose to stick with the Sooners on their 2012 BCS Championship run instead. It’ll take gimmickry like $5- and $10-dollar tickets … like the one I got in Comiskey to sit behind home plate in the summer of ’95.

And there are those who will tell you baseball still hasn’t fully recovered.

The NBA is arguably a stronger brand, among the best in all of professional sports.

It will bounce back.

And with class people like Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Grant Hill, Steve Nash, and Derrick Rose representing it, it shouldn’t take long.

But it’s going to hurt… and it sorely stings right now… in Oklahoma City… just four days into the lockout.

Ask the fans, who now may really have ‘nothing’ to do in Oklahoma City.

Ask the people in the Rose Garden, FedEx Forum and Oklahoma City Arena… if you can find them.

But most of all, ask the people who will lose business revenues – the hotels, the pizza delivery restaurants, the Hooters waitresses in Bricktown – and those who will lose their jobs if this thing goes like 1994 baseball and we lose the entire season and post-season. needs to keep tabs on Lindsay Lohan as she celebrates her birthday, violates her probation (again) and gets thrown back in jail this week …

As far as Kevin Durant goes, there is ‘nothing’ for him in Oklahoma City to do now that he has spent every minute of every session at his basketball camp.

The work to be done is in New York City.

There’s plenty to do there… and the game clock is ticking away?

Can they come up with another winner like this?

With Durant in the fight, there’s always hope.

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