Game Plan

With its labor dispute nearly behind it, the NBA is facing another mammoth problem: winning fans back.

In a time when the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high and the economy won’t grow, many basketball fans viewed the NBA strike as an ugly and petty fight of rich players against wealthy owners over a few more million.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I saw in my life,” one longtime fan ranted to the New York Post. “They make so much money. It’s childish.”

Childish or not, as the National Basketball Association welcomes back its players after reaching a tentative deal last Saturday, it has to figure out a way to bring back fans who were stung not only by the lockout, but by years of expensive ticket prices, the LeBron James-decision fiasco, and players throwing tantrums.

The five-month labor crisis and resulting lockout, which came after the players’ association and NBA owners’ inability to reach an agreement over a variety of issues from players’ salaries to revenue sharing after the last labor agreement expired, resulted in the cancellation of six weeks of games and spurred fears that the season would be cancelled. The announcement that both sides had reached a tentative deal was met with a sigh of relief from fans -- and also some hard feelings.

With basketball set to return Christmas day, the question owners and players should ask is: Will anyone show up to watch?

“Even before the strike happened—and the strike was a bad thing—they lost a lot of people given increased costs as the economy is hurting and their pocketbooks are hurting,” says Mike Paul, the president of MGP & Associates PR, who specializes in rebuilding scarred reputations.

The NBA’s image as an unaffordable luxury to fans is one that the league can easily fix.

Despite ticket prices falling for the past two seasons (though they remain above the budget of most American households), the NBA needs to make a larger gesture to fans to show that ordinary people can afford to go to games. They should consider what it did after the 1998 strike and slash prices – a sweet enticement for fans who are angry at missing so much of the basketball season.

The NBA also has to figure out how to make up for popular players who aren’t suiting up—at least not on this continent. Because of the long lockout, numerous players are stuck in contracts in Europe and China, which they signed earlier this season thinking there would be no ball in America. Fans, for instance, slammed Chris Douglas-Roberts, a 20-minute-a-game player for Milwaukee after he decided to finish out the season in Italy.

"Sorry to all my supporters but from a financial standpoint, it'll be foolish for me to break this contract to return to the NBA," he tweeted. "A 66 game season. W/that said, I'm ECSTATIC that we've reached a deal!!! My vote is already in! I'll be back as an unrestricted FA next year."

Minutes later, after receiving some negative feedback, he seemed shocked. “I mean d----,” he tweeted. “I’m sorry you guys feel that way.”

The league needs to quickly fill the holes left by players who haven’t made it home. Paul, the public-relations guru, suggests that it’s time for everyone to get involved in the community — [the general turkey giveaways on Thanksgiving] aren’t enough to cut it anymore. Making visits to schools, passing out tickets and even going to soup kitchen on non-holiday days could make a huge difference.

Bit players and rookies have an opportunity to become fans’ new favorites: Never underestimate the power of giving an autograph to a kid when you happen to be six foot eight and wearing a pro jersey—even if your only job is to play in garbage time. It’s also a great way for players to show that they know how lucky they are.

“As a team player in this league, you need to understand you are blessed more than more people on this earth,” Paul says. “Your manager, agency, and family should be on you to give back—if every single player in the NBA did that, it would make a huge difference.”

The NBA’s work stoppage also creates a common public relations problem that comes after most sports lockout: the quality of the game will be down.

No matter how much work players have done in the off-season, it’s unlikely they’ll look like their old selves without months of serious workouts and practice.

"I feel like a rookie again!" tweeted Rudy Gay, a forward on the Memphis Grizzlies after the tentative deal was announced. "Going on 10 months away from organized basketball. Can't wait to start!"

In the enthusiastic tweet lies the essential problem: No one wants to watch a league full of rusty rookies.

Players can’t instantly get in shape before the season starts in a few weeks, but they should be on their best behavior. That means not whining about anything league-related, no fights with refs and no in-team bickering. They need to cut out diva tantrums over playtime, not skip practice, and avoid embarrassing late-night incidents.

Players must also show how excited they are to be back on the court—and how much they want fans to join them. Many of the league’s biggest stars have already done so admirably— take, for instance, LeBron James.

"Man I just got up not too long ago and see we have a deal! I feel like my kids on X-mas day! So juiced!! Excited for the fans that stayed patient with us! #NBAlove," the Miami Heat star tweeted the day the deal was announced.

Now if he could just throw in a 360 dunk and take his team to an overtime win to start off the season ….

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