The NBA’s Desperate Need for PR Damage Control

Ah yes, pro sports. So deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture, pro sports in America have an immeasurable impact on so many things in our society. Sports can lift a nation with tales of tragic youth turned pro athlete superstar or cast depression on our psyche like how we all felt after watching the U.S. women’s soccer team lost to Japan in the World Cup Finals.

Relationships are forged and destroyed by sports. National and regional collective moods often rise and fall with the results of teams and individual efforts. Cities, towns and states can reap billions of dollars in revenue from pro teams in local markets.  

The hot sauce of our culture and a gazillion dollar industry, pro sports is often viewed as our catharsis in life, or out, our escape from the stress and mundane existence that we often get mired in as we grind out the days and weeks of the year. Having a stressful day at work? Relax, the world series game is on tonight. Just got reprimanded from your boss? No problem, flip on the tube that Sunday and bathe in the glory of the NFL because you happen to be a raging football fan and it’s your stress reliever. Happen to be a NBA fan? Well, you’re kinda out of luck.

The NBA is mired in a bitter battle between the players’ union and owners over a 50/50 split of Basketball related income (BRI) in addition to luxury-tax systems, the salary cap and competitive balance. All of this has forced the owners to “lock-out” the players forcing the cancellation of games for the first quarter of the season. Jobs, player salaries, local economies and most importantly fan experiences are all vaporizing as the gridlock continues. Not a good PR strategy for a league that is already struggling with a reputation problem.

Lockouts aren’t new to pro sports, Major League Baseball (MLB) has three in its history and NFL owners just this past summer locked out players for four and a half months over a new collective bargaining agreement. What seems to make the current NBA situation so sticky is that the issues on the table hit at the core of the league’s economic sustainability – the disparity over player’s salaries, long term contracts and performance on the court vs. small market owners who are desperately trying to field a competitive team and are crying out for fundamental changes to the economic architecture of the league.  22 teams out of 30 are lost money to the tune of $450 million for the 2010 – 2011 season (league losses for all 30 teams were estimated at around $300 million).

Couple this with the fact that most NBA Players do not enjoy the widespread iconic societal stature that players from other pro sports enjoy and are generally regarded as overpaid and causing a lot of trouble off the court. As David Aldridge from points out about the current impasse between owners and players:

“The same demons that have plagued the NBA – resentment by people of all stripes at huge salaries players receive, combined with recoil by many middle-class whites at the aesthetics of young African-American male appearance…are rearing their heads again.”

The current state of negotiations is painting an unflattering picture for the players who appear to be unwilling to give in to the 50/50 BRI split and are holding steadfast on their position that the owners will have to concede more revenue if the league is to get started anytime soon. The rising young stars of the league, who appear to be much more personable and pleasant than their older predecessors, are in danger of being branded as greedy and selfish by the players union refusal to budge in negotiations which could bode as a black eye for the sport in the foreseeable future just as it scrambles to switch into PR damage control to not alienate fans any more than it already has.

So what positive PR can the NBA drum up to help mend the reputation of the game, players and the league? To be honest, it’s hard to tell at this point what should be done and the timing of the PR campaign. Launching a PR initiative in the midst of a gridlocked negotiation environment is risky and will probably fall on deaf ears doing little to shift the public’s minds away from the ongoing discussions. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the NBA will need to shift to damage control and a return to positive sentiment for the league once the smoke clears and a deal between players and owners is reached.

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