On Thursday night in a Manhattan hotel, as owners and players bickered over ultimatums, the NBA was ignorant of a larger threat developing just miles away. On the southern tip of the rich island were gathered thousands of stubborn protesters representing American economic frustration. They were the people of Occupy Wall Street.
"We are the 99 percent,'' they have been chanting.
They share much in common with NBA fans.
In the NBA's corner of the universe, the 99 percent feel used, ignored, patronized and taken for granted. Fans are angry and they don't know how to express their demands.
The issues protested by the Wall Street Occupiers are far more serious than the lockout that is upsetting basketball fans. Yet the parallels are obvious. The NBA generates $4 billion annually and its players average $5 million in salary per year. Yet they cannot agree on how all of that money should be divided between the owners of the franchises and the employees. They have been arguing for more than two years without recognizing or respecting what is happening in the world around them -- not only that they should be celebrating their good fortune rather than fighting over it, but that those with far less wealth are beginning to mobilize and realize their own power.
There is an arrogance built into these NBA negotiations, a taken-for-granted understanding that fans will always come back. Professional football, baseball, hockey and basketball have all endured player strikes or owner lockouts that have obliterated parts or all of a season over the last several decades, and in every case the fans forgave and forgot. They always returned to watch and, most importantly, to reward the boycotters with higher-priced tickets and ever-increasing revenues.
But never has a league dared to shut itself down in a time like this, during a recession now generating its fourth year of high unemployment and foreclosures. The Occupy Wall Street protesters and their brethren emerging in scores of other cities in America (and around the world) are establishing their own agenda. They are refusing to argue the underlying details of the financial meltdown, and they don't claim to offer solutions. Instead, for now, they are simply demanding that they be acknowledged by those who hold the majority of money and power.
"Respect us,'' the protesters are saying.
"Or else what?'' the rich and powerful seem to be responding.
To which the protesters have said nothing ... yet. They are deciding how to respond and what to do amid an ominous silence.
The NBA has to be aware of its vulnerability here. The frustration of the Occupiers is the same kind of frustration that fans have felt during work stoppages throughout pro sports over the years. Most fans have neither understood nor wanted to understand the reasons why their games have been canceled. (Understand this much, players and owners -- fans view NBA games as their games, because one way or another they pay for the games that you think you own.) In previous years, fans have wanted to organize boycotts, but they have been undermined by their own virtue as fans. They care too much to hold on to grudges, and deep down they want to be fans.
Here is what has to be worrying the NBA. The owners and players ought to be frightened that fans will come to view this ongoing lockout as a symbol of something bigger. What if it strikes the larger public nerve, so that the NBA's $4 billion shutdown is turned into a high-profile example of something deeper and much more important than a game?
This kind of public reckoning has been forecast for a long time. How many times have you heard people complain about the rising prices of tickets, concessions and parking over the years? You hear talk that people aren't going to keep paying these prices, that the leagues are going to price out their fans. The fans have always kept paying.
But now the dots have never been easier to connect. This is a league that has used public money to finance its arenas -- expensive buildings that are now shuttered to the financial detriment of local governments as well as thousands of workers, and it's all because of a very simple and unbelievably greedy story. Everyone else suffers because 30 owners and 400 basketball players cannot agree on how to share $4 billion per year.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are trying in their own way to tell the rich and powerful that they must be conscious of the world around them. The NBA owners and players are failing to recognize not only their citizenship but also their extreme vulnerability. They have forgotten that the NBA exists largely due to its fans.
America needs Wall Street. But does America need the NBA?
What happens to the NBA if fans decide, via word-of-mouth, Facebook and Twitter, to express en masse their long-neglected point of view? Could they influence the NBA to resolve its lockout before the season has been lost altogether?
The NBA owners say their business cannot grow unless they can persuade the players to create a new financial model. The larger truth is that owners and players together cannot hope to grow or maintain their business in this horrible economy as long as they show a disregard for their relationship with the public.
In fact, the NBA needs to be taught a hard lesson by fans. In the early 1980s, owners and players formed a partnership to rescue their league from insolvency, coming together to invent the salary cap and install drug-testing policies that helped grow the league.
Now that growth has become their ruin. They are no longer partners but adversaries, and no business can thrive when the owners and employees view each other as enemies. Their success has separated them from the people who pay their salaries. It should go without saying that the NBA would not exist if not for the overwhelming financial support of the millions of people who buy tickets or watch on TV -- yet that most obvious message now has to be repeated. Because the players and owners have divorced themselves from that reality.
The owners and players think this labor fight is between them. They may turn out to be horribly wrong.
Each time they meet, the owners and players emerge from their failed negotiations and declare how much they love and feel sorry for the fans. It's the one statement both sides share in common, and it couldn't be more hollow or condescending. In the end, the details of their negotiations don't matter nearly so much as the harm the owners and players are creating together.
The NBA had better hope that fans don't organize their own statement: You need us more than we need you.