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The Sporting Discourse: How the NHL will surpass the NBA

BY IAN MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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The most talked-about NBA season in recent memory concluded with LeBron losing again and Dirk playing the hero. It was almost too well-written. Yet, with its current labor dispute, the NBA's lack of compromise has resulted in probable cancellations of at least some of the regular season.

If precedent is followed, expect a half-season from the NBA — the league did the same in 1999. The NHL's lockout in 2004-05 was the only time in the history of America's four major sports that an entire season was canceled because of a labor dispute.

But it's that same NHL that will gain the most from even a partial NBA season.

Puck-and-stick was on the rise from the dismal TV ratings of its post-lockout season even before the NBA lockout. There are so many factors: It's because of stars in cold-weather markets, it's because of such rule changes as the shootout, and it's because — perhaps more than any other sport — high-definition television enhances the hockey viewing experience.

And don't forget the Winter Classic, a savvy TV deal in which the league isn't second-fiddle to other sports on ESPN and ABC, or the phenomenal NHL video-game series.

Even with no NBA lockout, the NHL's popularity was on the rise, and the line between the popularity of the NBA and NHL is closer than I — and most — would guess. A recent Harris poll showed the decline of the NBA's popularity since 1998, when 13 percent of those surveyed said "pro basketball" was their favorite sport.

But Commissioner David Stern's baby never recovered after Michael Jordan's retirement and the partial season lockout, with now just 6 percent of those surveyed saying the same thing in 2010. In the same 2010 poll, hockey sits at 5 percent.

The foundation for hockey and the NHL to become the fifth-most popular sport and league in America is there (in case you're wondering, it's college football and NASCAR at three and four, behind the NFL and MLB).

Particularly in dual markets in which the NHL team is now more popular — think Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or Detroit — the lack of basketball will cement what has already been a losing battle for those NBA teams. In even-popularity or NBA-favored dual markets such as Dallas, Boston, or Los Angeles, the NHL will at least temporarily fill the winter-sports void.

The NBA lockout isn't close to being resolved. Unlike the NFL's recent standoff, which dealt with how to divvy up massive amounts of cash to everyone, the NBA is trying to configure numbers that would stop the league from hemorrhaging money. Ask President Obama and John Boehner about solving a debt crisis. It takes time.

But so does building a reputation. The NHL's image has improved immensely since its lockout ended, but it took five years and bold decisions by the league to get to this point. While the NBA would by no means be doomed if it locks out for part of a season or even the whole year, it would be costly.

As the NBA's ice gets thinner, the NHL's is getting thicker and thicker.


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