If NBA lockout persists, some ideas to regain audience

By Andrew Gilstrap

Photo courtesy of nbaovertime.wordpress.com.

 

We’re going to go a little overtime today, as the National Basketball Association is currently at the 11th hour of saving a full 82-game season for all teams. The lockout has stonewalled any free-agent movements and trades all summer. On Oct. 5, the league canceled all preseason games (each team plays eight). We will soon see if Commissioner David Stern is going to cancel any regular season games. The league certainly risks alienating fans (especially casual ones) if any games get canceled for the 2011-2012 season. It is still plausible that the NBA could lose the whole season due to disagreements between the owners and players union.

Wow, doesn’t all this just lift up your spirits so far? You would think the league and the players would have done all they could to get this season running on schedule. Television ratings were sizzling for the most recent playoffs, which were capped by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks winning that long-sought-after championship over the superstar-studded Miami Heat. Among other developments, we saw the young Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder teams blossom and captivate basketball fans nationwide. And now, here we are — facing the threat of no season and embittered fans. You only need to go to CBSSports.com and look at some of the comments on the latest lockout stories to see that some people are rooting for the league to cancel this season. (I have noticed that diehard baseball and hockey fans are usually the ones to attack the NBA.)

The lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season — or just the 1999 season, I should say — diluted the fan base, and even more fans jumped ship after Michael Jordan retired in 2003. The 2004 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers were a hit, but television ratings took a nose dive thereafter. It appeared that fans slowly were beginning to return within these last two years, as we saw a classic Finals showdown between the Lakers and Boston Celtics and then this year’s successful playoffs. For the purpose of what I’m about to propose, let’s fast forward and say the NBA cancels the 2011-2012 season. Unless they don’t care about rebuilding the fan base, league executives had better make some changes to the nature of the game itself, because the players can only do so much.

Soccer fans seem to take pride in the endurance their game requires and how much running the players have to do without breaks. Basketball requires the most running, and arguably the most endurance, out of any of our four main sports in the U.S. What if we further close the gap between soccer and basketball? Basketball is already the major U.S. sport that has the most international appeal, so a few rule changes could make the game more free-flowing and draw in more fans. Here are some in-game rule changes the NBA should consider if it cancels this upcoming season:

  • Timeouts: Reduce the number of full timeouts each team gets in a game from six to four, preferably even three. The number of 20-second timeouts per half (one) per team can stay the same.
  • Substitutions: Only allow player substitutions at the beginning of a quarter and at the six-minute mark of a quarter. The exception should be the fourth quarter, where coaches could substitute players at any dead ball in the last six minutes. This means each person who plays has to go for at least six straight minutes — unless he doesn’t get in until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
  • Foul-Out Disqualifications: With the increased restrictions on substitutions, allow the players to reach seven fouls — instead of the current six — before being disqualified.
  • Team fouls in a quarter: Increase the number of fouls a team can get in a quarter from five to six before the other teams begins shooting two free throws per foul.
  • Free throws: Drastically reduce the amount of free throws in a game. Only let players shoot free throws after technical fouls, illegal defense violations, flagrant fouls and when the other team records six or more fouls in a quarter. One team will just pass the ball in from out of bounds after all other fouls and violations.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a common thread between the new rules I just proposed: They all intend to reduce the number of stops and pauses in the game. These rules would help maximize engagement and usher in a new, potentially-more-exciting era in NBA ball. The league’s definitely going to need something like this if it decides to cancel all, or even half, of the upcoming season. The advertisers won’t like it as much, but they league needs to show a sign of good faith to existing and potential fans.
Tell me your thoughts on these proposed rule changes, and feel free to offer any other plausible adjustments you think the league could make.
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