5 Things to Expect From a Short NBA Season

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- NBA basketball's return is just about the best Christmas gift hoops fans can hope for, but a shortened season may leave them wondering what's in that present.

After locking out its players during a labor dispute that lasted from July 1 to Dec. 8, the NBA is starting its season Christmas Day with a five-game slate on TNT ( TWC), ESPN and ABC ( DIS). That season, however, was reduced from 82 games to 66 after the first six weeks of the original-recipe 2011-12 season were cancelled.

The amount of time players have had to prepare and condition has been cut dramatically as well and has forced the league to cut long travel for out-of-conference matchups from 30 games last year to only 18 this year. The All-Star Game has been saved, but teams will have to play three games in a row this season for the first time since the lockout-driven 50-game 1998-99 season.

This NBA season is going to require some adjustment no matter how much fans enjoy Christmas matchups between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder and L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors. The fun of watching the Clippers play with new toy Chris Paul or the Knicks celebrate getting Tyson Chandler as the center on the holiday wish list is balanced by a number of stubborn little obstacles that can ruin a good time as quickly as a zone defense or lead-weighted kicks during a dunk contest.

The following are five nagging little details fans should keep in mind as the season starts:

Prices staying put
Even before the lockout, the cost of going to an NBA game was on the rise. Last season's $47.66 average ticket price was down 2.3% from 2009-10, but the cost of bringing a family of four out to the arena and getting a beer, soda, hot dog, program, souvenir and parking jumped 1.1%, to $287.85, according to Team Marketing Report.

That's a bargain compared with the average $57 a ticket charged by the NBA's arena mates in the National Hockey League, especially when the cost of taking the family along rises to $326.50. When put alongside the $27 average ticket price and $197 cost of an average family outing that Major League Baseball is able to maintain over a 162-game season, though, the NBA's costs get downright cumbersome.

In Boston, for example, the Red Sox have the highest average ticket price in the league at $53.38 -- more than the New York Yankees' $51.83 -- and bleed families for an average $340 per game in hallowed soon-to-be-100-year-old Fenway Park. The Celtics, by comparison, are only the third-most-expensive ticket in the NBA, yet charge an average $25 a game more than the Sox for the privilege of seeing Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece play in the cinder block management still dares to call the "Garden."

Even the Yankees' $52 figure seems moderate compared with the $88.66 per game Knicks fans were paying downtown last year to watch a team that, before last postseason, hadn't made the playoffs in seven years and still hasn't won a playoff game in more than a decade.

No fan bailout
The lockout changed the NBA income split from about 57% for players to between 49% and 52% but did almost nothing to generate more income.

The NBA still sticks by its assertion that the league is losing $300 million a year. It also adamantly declares that 22 of its 30 teams lost money last year.

Despite big-ticket sponsorships from companies including Coca-Cola ( KO), Sprint ( S), Anheuser-Busch Inbev ( BUD), Nike ( NKE), Yum! Brands ( YUM), Hyundai/Kia, FedEx ( FDX), Southwest Airlines ( LUV) and Sirius-XM ( SIRI), the league is in some serious financial straits. Flagging attendance in some markets certainly doesn't help, but the biggest hindrance is coming from a revenue stream that should be the NBA's biggest asset.

Back in the dreadful economic climate of 2008, the NBA signed a broadcast deal with ABC, ESPN and TNT worth roughly $930 million a year. That's no small amount of change, but Adweek estimates that the league's broadcasters could bring in as much as $1.3 billion this season. That means a panicked NBA undersold its prized television rights by more than $300 million, more than it would need to plug its revenue gap and turn a profit.

While the Philadelphia 76ers have announced the team will cut fees for online ticket orders and delivery and the Indiana Pacers are enticing fans with $10-or-less "mystery matchup" tickets, NBA teams are mostly being miserly with the money they don't have. Who can blame them? Over at the National Football League, ESPN pays more than a $1 billion for the rights to Monday Night Football alone. The NFL just hiked that price to $1.8 billion per year and announced a deal with its other broadcast partners at CBS ( CBS), Fox ( NWS) and NBC ( CMCSA) that increases the league's take by 7% a year and will bring revenue from $1.9 billion to $3.1 billion by 2022.

That league just came off its own lockout and still keeps games off local television when the home team doesn't sell out. Expecting the NBA to offer fans any concessions beyond $9.50 beers (the going rate at Madison Square Garden ( MSG)) is about as myopic as hoping Kobe Bryant will take his talents to Milwaukee.

Lots of empty seats
NBA attendance is in the eye of the beholder.

The optimist says last year's 17,321 average attendance is an improvement over 17,150 the year before and huge growth from 16,784 a decade earlier. The realist sees a league that has never quite returned to its 17,757-a-game all-time peak in 2006-07 and has struggled since.

There's no doubt overall attendance will be the lowest since the scant 12 million people who came out for the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign, but the question is just how low will it go? The abbreviated 66-game schedule has wedged a whole lot of games into awkward midweek slots. The first week of the season bears this out, with 10 Wednesday matchups and only seven games slated for Saturday.

That's not a great way to fills seats, and sports business experts are predicting disastrous results at the ticket window and in the stands. CNBC's Darren Rovell is speculating that average official attendance will drop to 16,850 a game, which would set the NBA's in-house draw back a full decade.

Injured stars
The compressed training camp and fun-sized season are about to bring a world of hurt to a court near you, and a lot of the NBA's most marketable faces will be feeling it.

With 66 games in 124 days, there's a lot less time between games. That means a lot less recovery time for bumps and dings athletes would ordinarily massage away during the off days. Los Angeles Lakers head trainer Gary Vitti held the same position during the 50-game season of 1998-99 and says his crew saw the squeezed timetable take its toll.

"What we saw back then is more overuse injuries," he said on the team's Web site. "As you stress your body, it will lay down more muscle, tendon and ligamentous tissue according to the loads you put upon them. It's the same with bone. The problem arises when you overload tissue before it's had the chance to adapt to the loads. The tissue will go through a metabolic change."

Miami-based skills and development coach Darren Weissman, meanwhile, told ESPN that the key to staying on the court on that short schedule is a hard training regimen of lifting weights two to three days a week, on-the-court skills training five days a week and five days a week of different types of speed and agility workouts. He notes, however, that "40% to 50% of players don't train hard ... a lot of times, the ones who get the big bucks don't have the sense of urgency to work hard."

If attendance is going to suffer with everybody healthy, just imagine how it will drop the first time a marquee player sits on the bench in street clothes nursing a torn ligament.

Early retirement for old favorites
The strenuous schedule may cost stars more than a couple of days' recovery time.

NBA players who shared the court with Michael Jordan when he retired in 1993 are officially old by league standards. You can only imagine what that makes players who were around almost a decade before that point, like the Phoenix Suns' Grant Hill (39), the Heat's Juwan Howard (38 and the last member of Michigan's Fab Five in the league) and Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd (38).

No big farewell tours have been announced, but Kidd just won his first championship and league mainstays such as the Celtics' Kevin Garnett (35) and Ray Allen (36) and the Spurs' Tim Duncan (35) already have their championship hardware and are in the final year of their current contracts. The Suns' Steve Nash (35) is still searching for his ring, but may have to look elsewhere when his deal expires at the end of this season. They all may have suitors next year, but the options in a league where no player is older than 39 aren't great.

The NBA probably won't like seeing some of its greatest luminaries go, but this short season may be the last chance NBA fans get to see some of them.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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