Any work stoppage is a risk for a professional sports league. Missing games gets fans made, at which point they usually stop attending games or buying merchandise. Franchises end up losing money, and the reasons they had for wanting the lockout in the first place often end up being counterproductive.
ABC's games are averaging 3.3% of U.S. TV households, up 10% from last year. ESPN, despite a scrambled schedule that put NBA games in time slots where they hadn't previously aired, is averaging 1.3%. That's even with last year, when ESPN's NBA games got their best ratings since the network got NBA rights in 2002.
TNT's games are averaging 1.7%. That's up only slightly from last year, when NBA got strong ratings partly from the buzz about LeBron James joining the Miami Heat. But TNT is on track for its most-watched NBA games ever in part because of continuing interest in the Heat -- its four highest-rated games, outside Christmas Day, involved that team.
The explanation for these high ratings is simple: the NBA is compelling and, lockout or not, people want to see certains teams and players as often as possible. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Durant will continue to excite fans, and new and unexpected storylines like the Jeremy Lin explosion will bring in people who might otherwise have passed on a nationally televised game. Missing 16 games just wasn't enough to drive people away completely.
It would be interesting, though, to see how local broadcasts have been affected. Fans are watching good teams play other good teams in well-advertised games, but a random Tuesday night contest between the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Hornets might not appeal to people in either market. On top of that, the compressed schedule has forced teams to play so many games in so few nights that it's sometimes hard to keep track of exactly when and where teams are playing. Perhaps, in the absence of a typical offseason, a large portion of fans just lost interest in the day-to-day operations of the league.
The national ratings are very good, clearly, and at least prove that fans didn't flee the league en masse. But we won't know the full effects of the lockout until we take a more focused look at what happened to the league's lower-profile franchises. Anyone can get interested in LeBron James, but it takes a special kind of devotion to commit yourself to 66 games of Marco Belinelli.