DALLAS — So far in the NBA finals, television numbers have been skyrocketing, as was the case around the league for much of the season. ABC and ESPN had record viewership numbers all season for NBA telecasts.
Some would suggest interest in the league has never been higher.
Which begs the question: Would those eyeballs come back if next season is interrupted by labor strife?
It's one that ABC and ESPN analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy hope they don't see answered.
Both expressed concern Saturday over the direction the league's labor rift may be heading. More talks between the NBA and its players are scheduled to take place in Dallas over the coming days, though both parties — even while indicating some progress may have been made at a negotiating session in Miami after Game 1 of the finals — still appear to be bracing for a lockout to commence when the current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30.
"Very concerned," Jackson said. "It's been an all-time great season from top to bottom. You can't go anywhere where people are not talking about the great stories that have occurred throughout the course of the year. It's important ownership, management, players, union get together and try to keep this momentum going. I think there's more than enough money available to make a deal where everybody will be happy. It's going to be interesting."
The NBA wants a hard salary cap, which players absolutely do not want to see. The current salary cap system allows for certain exceptions that permit teams to exceed it, such as to re-sign their own free agents. They wouldn't have that luxury under a hard cap system, potentially forcing teams to make some difficult decisions to stay below the threshold.
The league has also said it wants to cut player-salary costs by nearly $800 million a year.
Despite all the pressing labor matters, fans are watching in droves.
ABC's broadcasts of the first two games of the NBA finals drew an average of 15,347,000 viewers, up 28 percent over the last Miami-Dallas finals series in 2006 and even up 3 percent over what two traditional powerhouse franchises — the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics — lured last year. And around the league, viewership on regional sports networks was up 13 percent this season, the NBA said.
"If this does go to a lockout, it's different than the NFL," Van Gundy said Saturday. "There are real economic hardships that some teams are facing in the NBA losing money. The NFL, it's just, 'How much more do you want to make?'"
Months of NFL labor talks broke down on March 11 and plenty of discussion sessions since have not ended that dispute, placing the 2011 season in jeopardy. The NBA played a 50-game schedule instead of the customary 82 in the 1998-99 season because of a lockout.
"If you have a well-managed team, where whoever is making the business and basketball decisions, you should be guaranteed two things," Van Gundy said. "One, that you can earn a profit and two, that you have a chance to compete for a championship, no matter what city you're in. And I think right now, you can't say that that's possible under this system. But the first qualifier is being managed properly, and there's a lot of teams you could go say that the players (should not) have to buy you out of your mistakes."
Van Gundy is not cringing at the thought of a lockout this summer, though he clearly does not want to see next season interrupted, either.
He sees some potential benefits if everyone is forced into a break this summer, most notably rest from the demands of a long season, especially for young players — many of whom started training camp in September, play all fall and winter and then get asked to participate in summer leagues and other offseason workouts.
"God bless the lockout," Van Gundy said, "until September 1."
With two major leagues facing the same dilemma — even though the problems plaguing both are different — Jackson suggested it might be a good idea to get negotiating sides from the NFL and the NBA in the same room to work through deals.
"Let's get them all in a room and say, 'Fellas, do you understand what's at risk here? Do you understand what's going on in society today? Do you know how many people are hurting and struggling?'" Jackson said. "I'd bring football people in the same room and say, 'OK, let's find a way to get this done.' We can get it done where everybody's happy and continue to keep the momentum going."