NBA Must Win Back the Fans

Collective bargaining negotiations between the NBA and NBPA are almost done. Both sides can now concentrate on reconnecting with the fans. (celticshub.com)

(also published on DigBoston.com)

NBA owners and NBA Players’ Association executive director Billy Hunter reached a tentative agreement Saturday that could end the class-action lawsuits, reform the NBPA and allow for an abbreviated, 66-game 2011-12 NBA season.

Should the players ratify, they will give up just over 6 percent of the vaunted Basketball Related Income. In return, their new collective bargaining agreement will, among other stipulations: improve qualifying offers for NCAA “starters” entering the NBA, increase the maximum salary for young players who finish their rookie contracts and re-sign with their old teams, and maintain player-controlled option years.

This new CBA would either improve on or at least maintain the current money-making possibilities available to both young players and veterans, so it’s unlikely that a workforce eager to return to work wouldn’t ratify and reform. That means the battle for the CBA is just about over.

The battle for the fans, however, has just begun.

This negotiation took far too long to reach the outcome that fans and the media knew was coming. For whatever reason, the NBA doesn’t make what the NFL or MLB does (and kudos to the MLB, by the way, for quickly and quietly reaching a new CBA). Players make too much, teams make too little, and some re-division was simply inevitable.

While both sides crawled towards the inevitable BRI re-splitting, fans were subjected to an ugly, hostile “negotiation.”

The battle between millionaires and billionaires drifted farther and farther away from a population so enraged by America’s entrenched relations with the ultra-rich that they’ve taken to the streets in every single U.S. state. And because basketball plays third fiddle behind football and baseball just about everywhere except Los Angeles and Miami, much of the fan support for the NBA has disappeared.

It will take an act of contrition to get fans back in the stands after forcing them to listen to the juvenile bickering of people who, employed or unemployed, have already made millions more than most fans will make in their lifetimes.

Every NBA owner must start the healing process with an apology. Every single season-ticket holder should get a written letter from his or her team’s owner that a) acknowledges that the CBA negotiation was mishandled, b) expresses a sincere desire to regain the fans’ trust, and c) outlines the steps the league will take to improve the quality of its product and prevent this from happening again.

After that, NBA teams need to start taking a page out of colleges. Boston University has often connected season-openers with giveaways, happily handing out a free towel or t-shirt with Rhett the Terrier on it. Considering how cheep sport paraphernalia really is, NBA teams could easily make similar offerings without costing money. Giving away free crap, no matter how crappy, will always put fans back in the stands.

A reduction in ticket prices would also be nice, but that’s unlikely. Instead, teams should offer periodic free or at least inexpensive autograph sessions, and make the stars show up. No one wants Von Wafer‘s signature – they want Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

Get the starters at a table, make them sit there for a couple of hours, and do it often enough that people can show up without needing to sleep on Causeway Street the night before.

Regular autograph and meet-and-greet sessions will quickly improve player-fan relations. Fans usually come away from just a two-minute conversation feeling as if they know the players. It’s a false sense of intimacy, but it still goes a long way towards preserving the critical belief that players play for the fans and not for themselves.

Yes, this strategy will require players to give up more of their free time than they normally would. Quite frankly, that is their punishment. The players were not blameless during these negotiations, not by a long shot. They must also make an act of contrition to their fans.

The owners can’t do much besides spend money, so that’s what they’ll do. The players have fought tooth-and-nail not to give up more money, so their punishment must instead cost them time.

Players and teams must double their community-outreach efforts. To rebuild the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks must truly become part of Dallas. The Philadelphia 76ers must integrate fully with Philadelphia. The Boston Celtics must reconnect with Boston.

With this new deal, NBA basketball will likely start on Christmas Day. But without more from both the owners and players, very few will watch it.

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