CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – NBA players who just finished a season capped by the highest rated championship series in more than a decade are concerned about how their labor dispute and a potential work stoppage before next season will affect their surging fan base.
Luke Walton said the packed road arenas the Los Angeles Lakers played in this season suggest the league's popularity is at a high point, and he's most concerned about how fans would respond if the labor issues aren't resolved and cause a delay to the start of the next season.
"The idea of the lockout and losing fans is probably the scariest thing of all," the eight-year veteran said. "Even moreso than missing games or losing out on your salary for however long you lose those games, it's losing the fan support because it's at an all-time high right now."
The numbers bear it out.
All three networks that televise NBA games reported a huge increase in viewers, led by a 42 percent increase for TNT. ABC had 38 percent more viewers, and ESPN had 28 percent more.
Arena capacity was 90.3 percent, its seventh straight year of 90 or better, and the 17,306 average was up 1 percent from last year and is the fifth highest in the league's history.
With the emergence of Derrick Rose as the league MVP, young teams in Oklahoma City and Memphis rising up to challenge traditional powers such as the Lakers and NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, and even the New York Knicks on the rise with the addition of Carmelo Anthony, the league seems to have as many viable contenders as in recent memory, which adds to its allure.
To stop the momentum with a lockout that fans might perceive as a selfish battle between already rich greedy owners and greedy players, Walton said, would be taking a huge risk.
"We know how dangerous it can be. We've seen it happen before. We've seen it happen in our sport with the last lockout. We saw it happen in baseball, hockey, and it's damaging," he said at the NBPA's annual Top 100 camp for elite high school players. Walton was taking part in a coach program for players at the camp, which wraps up Sunday at the University of Virginia.
"The popularity is at the top," he said. "It's high, and the ratings were record-breaking the last few years, and from the fans' perspective, the owners make a ton of money and are very wealthy, and the players make a ton of money and are very wealthy, so its kind of hard for them to sympathize with either side when these guys are hard-working people trying to make it and they're spending their hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise and all that stuff."
Walton isn't the only one.
The Grizzlies' Tony Allen also was taking part in the coaching program, and while he said a work stoppage would "put a needle in the balloon" of momentum, he sees a rather simple solution.
Financial restraint by management.
"If you're a GM, you've got to be smarter with your money," he said, echoing a thought career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar voiced Friday. "If you don't want to give a guy $197 million and you believe he's only worth 60 percent of that, sign him for just 60 percent of it."
Abdul-Jabbar, who highlighted the importance of education in his chat with the campers, said he understands why fans won't be sympathetic to arguments over enormous amounts of money.
"There's a lot of guys that are overpaid, and that's another issue that the owners need to deal with because certain people are overpaid and that's ballooning the salaries to the point where the owners can't recoup their investment," the Lakers' assistant coach said.
"Everybody should be able to feel satisfied. The players should feel satisfied that they are getting paid adequately and the owners should feel satisfied that they are getting a good return on their investment," he continued. "In a perfect world, that's how it will end up."