Professional sports relies on a thread of loyalty to make itself profitable. In modern times, the loyalists have gone as far as to define themselves as a nation — a subculture within the larger culture that, in the digital age, can unite vast diasporas ("Red Sox Nation" and "Raiders Nation," to name two) of fans scattered far and wide.
It is this loyalty, the voluntary association of a team to personal and civic identity, that the NBA and its players risk if this season is canceled.
Such a cancellation became a real possibility this week when talks broke down and the player's union announced its intention to file a disclaimer or interest, a step toward disbanding the union.
That move pushes the dispute from the bargaining table to the courtroom, setting in motion a legal battle that, unless both sides agree to settle, could take years to resolve.
The NBA had a similar dispute in 1998 that ended in January of 1999 and allowed for a shortened season. The National Hockey League had a dispute that canceled the entire 2004-05 season. Each dispute gave the respective league a huge public relations problem. It can be argued that the NHL has yet to recover.
But the current NBA dispute is being fought against the backdrop of something those earlier fights did not have — a national economic crisis with its attendant high unemployment, stagnant wages and public anger over wealthy people behaving badly.
The NBA asks a lot of its fans. Last year, the average ticket price was $48.08. Reuters calculated the average price of taking a family of four to a game, including drinks, food, parking, programs and souvenir caps, at $289.51.
That was a price of loyalty many people were willing to make, despite hardships. For some it was the price their employers were willing to pay as corporate season tickets were given to workers as perks. If loyalties disappear, those people and those companies may be glad to pocket the savings.
The dispute is not simply a question of dividing billions of dollars of revenue. Some teams reportedly are losing money and will lose less in a lost season than if games were played under the old collective bargaining agreement.
The Utah Jazz operates in a small market and has much to gain from a new deal that holds down salaries and empowers teams to hold onto star players.
Every team and player loses, however, if loyalty evaporates and fans become indifferent.