Professional sports holds an exaggerated place in modern American life. At its worst, politicians and bureaucrats link it to overblown promises of economic development, luring millions in taxpayer dollars to build arenas or, as is the case with West Valley City and the Utah Grizzlies, to subsidize teams. In reality, a few already wealthy people are enriched the most.
The truth is, if the National Basketball Association were to cancel its upcoming season, people along the Wasatch Front would spend their entertainment dollars on other things. Business around the EnergySolutions Arena, and certainly the arena itself, would suffer. But the economy as a whole would barely notice. That was the case in the affected cities when the NHL skipped a season during a labor dispute.
The effect on a community's psyche and collective sense of identity, however, may be another matter. The Utah Jazz are the state's only high-profile major sports franchise (Real Salt Lake and professional soccer remain outside the nation's mainstream sports radar). The team can provide a sense of community pride, as well as a welcome diversion during cold, sometimes inversion-choked winter days.
Unfortunately, the NBA has announced it is delaying the start of training camps indefinitely and canceling the first week of preseason games as owners and players continue to differ over the wording of a new labor contract. Negotiations are like workplace deadlines or the way most children treat homework. They become serious only when disaster looms. In this case, the difference between both sides is down to about $75 million. Critics have noted this is a tiny figure when compared with the players' combined $2 billion in salaries and the anticipated $4 billion owners expect to reap in revenue during the upcoming season.
But the history of professional sports suggests it would not be unreasonable to plan for the possibility that some or all of the season might be lost. The issue at stake has to do with how basketball-related income is shared, and the players would argue they already have conceded enough, coming down from a 57 percent share to something near 50 percent.
There are other issues at stake besides money. Small-market teams — and Utah certainly qualifies as one — would like a greater ability to hang onto star players who might be lured by the bright lights of big cities. And despite the revenues, many teams claim to be losing money — a collective total of red ink the commissioner places at $300 million. That's a figure, it should be noted, the players dispute.
But with high unemployment in the general economy, and with tough times eating into many household budgets, the league would be wise to brace itself a more austere future. It may gain a huge chunk of its revenue through advertising, but it would be hard to sustain exorbitant salaries in all 30 markets if tough times continue long term. Attendance, meanwhile can be an indicator of community interest, and it appears to be waning in some markets.
Whether all this can be worked out quickly in coming days is anyone's guess. Life in Utah certainly would go on normally without the NBA. It would be more interesting with it, however, which is the best reason to hope for a quick settlement.