SBJ/October 24-30, 2011/Opinion

Forecast calls for stormy NBA, shifting fronts for NCAA, USOC

You know how sports magazines usually wait until December to do a Year in Review or make Swami-like prognostications for the coming year? Well, we couldn’t wait. Given what’s going on with the NBA and NCAA, these are, as the Chinese proverb portends, “interesting times” … especially when you look at our industry as a whole.

The NBA: As the late Dennis Hopper once said in his infamous Nike ad (the one where he played a deranged referee pawing through Bruce Smith’s locker): “Bad things, man. Bad things.” And, wow, Dennis wasn’t kidding. Looking at the NBA’s ugly lockout, which led to an Oct. 10 announcement that regular-season games would be canceled, we now see empty arenas stretching out until at least early 2012. Beyond that, we can only repeat what NBA Commissioner David Stern has said all along: The NBA’s business model (its system) is broken and this labor stoppage must fix it.

The good news, though, is that with games officially called off, both owners and players have “real” skin in the game to the tune of a reported first-hand ante of $325 million. That’s a lot of poker chips shoved toward the middle of the table, especially when both sides say they aren’t bluffing. We expect more games will get canceled and more fans will migrate to other arenas of interest.

The NCAA: This one is simply mind-blowing. With TCU’s move to the Big 12, we see five super conferences emerging in the very near future (the ACC, Pac-12, SEC, Big Southwest and the curiously named Big Ten). When those 64 teams are tidily aggregated, they will pull away from the NCAA in order to create a massive football-basketball product managed by IMG College and televised exclusively by ESPN.

NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
More canceled games appear on the horizon for David Stern (center) and the labor-troubled NBA.
There will still be much wailing and gnashing of teeth by numerous college presidents (not in the 64) and by NCAA executives as they lose control of the golden goose. What’s going to be even more interesting to watch, though, is the final, frenzied courtship of West Virginia, Missouri, Boise State, Kansas and Notre Dame.

The Olympics in North America: What’s to write? There will be no Games in America before 2024.

Or as U.S. Olympic Committee chief communications officer Patrick Sandusky told us: “The USOC has said for quite some time that until the revenue sharing discussions with the IOC are completed, we will not consider bidding for any future Games. This applies to the 2020 bid but also any future bids. We cannot in good faith have another city [like Chicago] spend the nearly $100 million that it takes to bid these days, while we still have this outstanding issue with the IOC. The original discussions with the IOC were not scheduled to start until 2013. Hopefully, the fact that we have accelerated these talks more than two years ahead of schedule demonstrates how serious we are taking them.”

Economically speaking, that means the traditional billion dollars or so generated by a major international sporting event (discounting Toronto’s hosting of the 2015 Pan American Games) will not materialize and pro sports leagues will fill the sports vacuum for the next 13 years. Since the USOC won’t bid for 2022’s Winter Games (leaving Quebec City to win the bid in 2015), we’re left predicting the USOC will bring Chicago back for another run in 2017 (for the 2024 Games).

The NHL: Unlike some of the other properties, the NHL’s future keeps getting brighter. The league has been bolstered in Canada by the successful return of the Jets to Winnipeg, in Europe where the KHL is struggling (while watching the NHL play games in Stockholm and Helsinki), by impressive improvements in leaguewide sponsorship, by the return of league star and Olympic Games hero Sidney Crosby and the eventual return of the Nordiques to Quebec City.

These positives will be, however, tempered by a few key challenges. First, hits to the head (and the resulting concussions) remain a major media topic thanks to the Crosby injury. Accordingly, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and various youth associations are now putting in strict measures to protect players. Second, a number of U.S.-based franchises, thanks to ongoing economic realities, will keep facing worsening financial challenges that will threaten teams like Phoenix, Dallas and the New Jersey Devils. For them, the NBA lockout may be a godsend.

The NFL and CFL: Despite the challenges faced by the other sports, American football continues to chug along, virtually recession-proof. The NFL and its players smartly avoided any missed time due to labor negotiations and the NFL season started with a bang: competitive games, Monday night double headers, more protection for QBs and a bright outlook for the future. Similarly (but on a smaller scale), north of the border, the CFL is enjoying a very good season heading toward its 99th Grey Cup in November and an even better one for its centennial year.

Although pro football keeps throwing off a warm glow, a few dark clouds are evident off in the distance; namely the CFL’s challenge to establish itself in Canada’s largest city and one of North America’s top media markets (Toronto) and the ongoing issue of player safety. The NFL will, however, have a team in Los Angeles soon but no team in San Diego. And stop worrying about Buffalo without the Bills. Trust us, they’re staying put.

We imagine continued good tidings for Ironman triathlons, MMA, professional lacrosse and, of all things, cricket. But stay tuned, our little industry never lacks for mayhem and disruption.

Rick Burton(rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (Norman.Oreilly@uOttawa.ca) is an associate professor of sport business at Ottawa University.

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