When the NFL preseason – the most over-marketed, over-analyzed, overblown preseason in professional sport – seemed in jeopardy in August due to the ongoing NFL lockout, this country came close to rioting. Ongoing collective bargaining negotiations dotted national headlines day after day after day. Pundits endlessly debated each side’s merits.
Rather than risk a blow to the league’s image or any actual profit losses, owners and players mobilized, getting a deal done without barring fans from a single minute of games that have never, and will never, matter.
Meanwhile, actual NBA games have been officially canceled, yet this country’s furor over lost basketball isn’t anywhere close to what it was three months ago.
The NBA’s lockout is far pettier than the NFL’s: basketball team owners and the NBA haven’t spent years actively quelling allegations that a common basketball injury is secretly ruining players’ brains, leading to an incredibly bitter workforce unwilling to make further monetary concessions to the people who are profiting while they slowly kill themselves for the public’s entertainment.
But even without that angry undercurrent humanizing the people involved, the public outcry just hasn’t been there. Why is that?
The traditional way to gauge public opinion is through the media. While ideally journalists should act as voices for the public, a more cynical reason is that news organizations encourage writers to write what consumers already want to read, because that sells more papers.
This is where basketball’s racial issues come into play. It’s not that black people only like basketball and white people only football, but rather that the sports media industry is still very white. And because of that, sports journalists in general may not be attuned to the full range of opinions in an increasingly diverse America.
Black America could be outraged over the loss of basketball to the same extent that white America (again, as represented by a majority-white sports media world) seemed to be over football. Without reporters able to show this, however, it’s difficult to tell. Comparing the two lockouts through the whitewashed lens of national sports media, it still seems like people just don’t care about basketball.
A far more demonstrable reason for basketball’s apparent lack of interest is geography. Football is a truly national sport: where in this country isn’t it the most popular sport, let alone not important at all? Meanwhile, basketball plays third-fiddle behind both football and baseball in most markets.
Bostonians love the Celtics, sure, but more than the Red Sox or Patriots? New York? Lots of Knicks fans, but are there more than of the Jets or Yankees? Even great basketball cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta face perpetual challenges from their baseball and football counterparts.
Basketball may have held an unlikely, tenuous grip over Texas, but the rise of the Rangers may have already ended it.
The only markets where basketball truly reigns supreme are Los Angeles and parts of Florida (Orlando and Miami, and in the latter case a couple good years from the Dolphins could steal it back). Really, that’s it.
Other U.S. states might love college basketball – Connecticut and North Carolina, for example – but the NCAA has never marketed itself as the feeder to the NBA the way it has for the NFL. With basketball’s ability to draft out of high school and from international talent pools (the sport is unarguably growing faster outside the U.S.), the two leagues remain more separated entities.
The NFL may have just been too popular, too much of a marketing juggernaut, to have been allowed to miss a single profitable moment. But without the same national appeal, NBA fans have either suffered in silence or just not suffered at all.
The once-a-week, five-month schedule of football has always made it a more ritualized sport in this country. Missing even one game is like missing five NBA games. By that measure, Celtics fans have already lost nearly the equivalent of three weeks of Patriots games.
Had those losses been forced upon football fans, the league might never have recovered. But with basketball, no one seems to mind.