By Dan Shanoff
I'm an NBA fan and hope they resolve the lockout soon. Realistically, nothing will happen until the late fall and I fully expect the season to start in 2012 - at the earliest - with a truncated (ironically highly compelling) regular season followed by a full playoffs. It's going to be a long slog.
I strongly disagree, however, with the NBA pundits who claim that a lockout will hurt the game with fans. The avid fans will always come back. And, thanks to the strength of the product, there are more avid NBA fans than there have been in years. The avid fans - particularly in the media - might be the loudest critics, but let me repeat: The avid fans will always come back.
The casual fans will come back for the same reason they came around last year: The Heat. The casual fans weren't paying that close attention to the regular season anyway. They found the Heat a supremely compelling story. When the playoffs came around, they tuned in more avidly - nothing about a long lockout or half-season will change the drama of the playoffs.
That's why I argued yesterday that it is a bigger threat to casual fans' interest in the NBA if the Heat lose in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the playoffs than if the NBA loses half its regular season to the lockout.
Which is it, pundits? If the league is better than ever (or at least better than it has been in a generation), what kind of faith do you show in the product or its fans that you think fans would erode because the league isn't active from July to December? Or is the league flimsy enough that a summer of inactivity and fall lockout while most fans are giving their attention to the NFL, college football and baseball playoffs anyway will indelibly harm the league?
I don't think so. I have more faith in the strength of the game than that. I have more faith in the fans -- both avid and casual -- than that.
The lockout will be boring. The lockout will be long-lasting. The lockout will be painful -- but more from the largely irrational hysterics of pundits than any actual lasting damage done to the league.
Avid fans will wait breathlessly for the lockout to end. Casual fans will return in force with the playoffs, as long as the Heat are in the mix. That is the only thing we really know, and that's true whether the season runs smoothly or doesn't start until 2012.