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Steve Aschburner

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It would appear that the lockout didn't have the negative effects on the NBA many predicted.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA flourishing post-lockout as excitement, business grows


Posted Feb 16 2012 1:41PM

Fans of the NBA who figured that the five-month labor standoff last year would bring the league to its knees might want to click away from this page. The news is not good.

Because the business is.

From July through Thanksgiving, during the throes of the lockout, the elephant in the room was this: Whenever a deal finally was struck, the public backlash would quickly follow. The sense that NBA fans would wish a pox on both the owners and players, as they squabbled over slivers of percentage points in their split of $4 billion in revenues, was palpable. The longer the lockout dragged on, the thinking went, the worse it likely would get.

Except the numbers argue differently now that everything is up and running.

"We were, of course, concerned about how our fans would react to the lockout and the missed games," NBA deputy commissiner Adam Silver said Thursday. "Somewhat to our surprise, fans quickly put it behind them and embraced our season openers on Christmas Day. Interest has continued from there to exceed expectations. In fact, I can't remember when there has been this much excitement about more teams and players across the league and more must-see games on a nightly basis."

Said Chris Granger, NBA executive vice president of team marketing and business operations: "I don't think we're seeing lingering effects of the lockout from a fan-interest standpoint. ... Our full-season [ticket] base is as strong as it's ever been. We're doing very well in individual game sales across all teams."

Here are some of the metrics that matter:

Attendance: Through Tuesday, the average team attendance was 17,109, only slightly off from last season's 17,319 -- and with some of the big-crowd teams having played light home schedules so far (Clippers 13 dates, Bulls and Thunder only 11). The Timberwolves (17,107, or 112 percent of last season's average) and the Clippers (109 percent) have led the gainers, though the split this week showed 16 up, 14 down from their 2010-11 averages.

Broadcast ratings: Viewership has been up across the board, according to recent figures for ESPN (up 21 percent), TNT (24 percent), ABC (10 percent) and NBA TV (57 percent), compared to last season. NBA TV has tacked on more than 3.3 million households since the beginning of the year and is now available in more households than ever (more than 59 million). Its ratings have jumped 59 percent in prime time.

Local telecasts are up too, in both over-the-air games (29 percent) and on regional cable networks (12 percent).

The Christmas Day opening, with five games, made it the NBA's most heavily watched since 2001, when the Nielsen folks started tracking that audience.

Social media: Twitter and Facebook traffic is at peak levels, and the league has embraced (for the most part) interactivity with fans as an important part of its marketing tactics. An estimated 345 NBA players use Twitter, while about 110 players are on Facebook.

More than 737 million videos have been viewed on the NBA's YouTube channel, making it the most popular in sports.

NBA.com is on pace to break records for traffic (page views up 20 percent and video streams up 50 percent).

Merchandise sales: Since the season opened, sales have increased 30 percent compared to the same point last year (the lockout did pinch a little in October, November and December with holiday shoppers). At the current temporary (and smaller) NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, sales per square foot are up 66 percent.

Even filtering for the "Linsanity" -- the Jeremy Lin mania that has grabbed Knicks fans and many NBA fans worldwide over the past two weeks -- sales have been strong. Items related to Lin have been beyond that, said Sal LaRocca, executive vice president of NBA global merchandising; Lin's jersey shot to the top of the individual sales.

"I've never seen it happen so quickly," LaRocca said. "Especially when a lot of people feel, if you took a poll of everyone wearing his jersey today and asked two weeks ago, if they actually knew he was even on the Knicks roster."

Corporate partnerships: Every sponsorship deal up for renewal this season was, in fact, renewed, including Anheuser Busch, Gatorade and Auto Trader, said Mark Tatum, executive vice president for NBA global marketing partnerships. Also, the league began new deals with Sprint and Under Armour.

No one bailed during the uncertain period of the lockout, Tatum suggested, because the league stayed in constant communication with those partners.

It's all rather surprising. Sentiment about the lockout, almost entirely negative, had been palpable. People -- and corporate partners -- had known for months that the league's summer and fall of 2011 were in jeopardy. NBA honchos had calculated contingencies of all sorts worthy of a bunker under the Pentagon.

So why no backlash?

One reason probably is that, from a macro sense, the U.S. economy at least isn't worse than it was a year ago -- and it arguably might be a bit better. LaRocca stressed the long-term relationships that the league has with retailers and manufacturers, same as with sponsors and season-ticket holders. The games went away, in other words, but the ongoing contact did not.

Business adjustments weren't shared for this story but surely were made. And most of those involved, from all sides, pointed to the Christmas start-up date. Squeezing in 66 games per team was more of a cash grab for the owners and the players, but getting it all up and running by Christmas pleased the corporate side of things.

"It gave people a real point in time for the start and really gave us a platform, with five games televised nationally, to put the focus back on the sport," LaRocca said. "We felt too that the longer the lockout would have gone, with the risks of the season being canceled, there would be some skepticism in the market."

Saving Christmas made saving All-Star Weekend possible, another important consideration. And for as long as this lockout ran, the "jerk" quotient never seemed to get as high, at least in terms of public perceptions. Despite media of all forms available to cover it 24/7, things never quite degenerated into the rancor or tin-ear quotes from players and owners that permeated the 1998-99 shutdown.

So now, even if there are grumbles about the quality of play, a flurry of injuries and a rush of games, the bottom line hasn't suffered. In some case -- thanks, Linsanity -- it has prospered.

"It all goes back to the fans' interest in the game," said Mike Bass, NBA senior vice president of marketing communications. "That's what we're seeing. Whether you're a Knicks fan enthralled with what they've been doing or a Bobcats fan unhappy with what they're doing, there's still that passion that always exists around our game. When the game is good and people are talking about it, things continue to work well on the business side."

Still, it'sa good thing that the collective bargaining agreement that inspired so much bickering can't be opened for at least six years.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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