This Sunday, NBA fans will rejoice as the League tips-off a full slate of holiday games to mark the start of a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, marking the first time since the 1998-99 campaign the NBA is tipping-off late due to a work stoppage.

When comparing the differences between the 1998 NBA lockout and the recent 2011 shutdown, it’s common to see 204 versus 172, as in the number of days each lockout lasted. Or 50 versus 66, comparing the number of regular season games for the respective seasons after the lockouts ended.

But the one number that may truly define the biggest difference between the two lockouts is 140, as in the number of characters in each of the thousands of tweets that gave the League and the players their own voice, gave media a real-time reporting tool and gave fans the most direct access to a lockout in professional sports history.

In 1998, long prior to the birth of Twitter and the real-time direct access to athletes, teams and leagues that fans expect today, fans had to rely on not-so-timely traditional media reports for updates on contract negotiations, and players had virtually no voice or exposure beyond that of their union representatives.

In 2011, that couldn’t have been further from the case. Here are a few memorable ways Twitter impacted the League, the players, the players’ association, media and owners during the lockout:

The NBA

  • As negotiations heated up, the NBA created @NBA_Labor to communicate its messages directly, answer fan and media questions pertaining to the lockout and proactively engage with tweets from media, fans and players to correct what it perceived as misinformation.
  • While deep in the negotiations stage as the sides were working hard to achieve a deal, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver hosted a live Q&A on Twitter on November 13, answering questions from fans, media and players in real-time.

The Players

  • Some players – like Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin — took advantage of direct access to millions of fans through their Twitter accounts to enhance their image in unique ways.
    • Durant played in perhaps the most well-documented intramural flag football game in history, an event which came to fruition completely via Twitter.
    • Griffin used Twitter to promote his well-publicized “internship” at the comedy website Funny or Die, gaining thousands of fans and followers along the way.
  • Other players, like Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes, communicated openly about the lockout with fans via Twitter and challenged facts being issued by the NBA.
  • Meanwhile, NBPA Vice President Roger Mason Jr. got into hot water over a tweet about the lockout that he meant to be a text. Mason initially claimed his account was hacked, but later owned up to the tweet.

The Players’ Association

  • While the players used their individual Twitter channels to express their opinions on the lockout, the NBA Players’ Association used @TheNBPA to spread its messages, share breaking news and correct what it considered to be misinformation during the negotiation process.

The Media

  • The media may have been impacted more by the presence of Twitter during the lockout than any other group. In an era where a “scoop” is defined by being the first reporter to send out anything resembling new news over real-time communication channels, reporters like Adrian Wojnarowski, Ken Berger, David Aldridge and Howard Beck were forced to camp out around the clock at negotiation sites to provide updates and breaking news in real time.
  • It’s fitting that in the new age of real-time reporting, and reflecting a major difference between the 1998 and 2011 lockouts, reporters on-site tweeted the end of the lockout once they got word a little past 3 a.m. Eastern time on November 26.

The Owners

  • Although some NBA owners, such as Mark Cuban, Peter Gruber and Paul Allen, are active on Twitter and at times outspoken, owners were clearly directed by the NBA to remain silent about negotiation issues and the lockout or else face steep fines. Those warnings were heeded for the most part, with the exception of Miami HEAT owner Micky Arison, whose response to a fan on Twitter earned him a $500,000 fine, again marking a history-making event with regards to Twitter’s role in a professional sports work stoppage.

As the NBA tips-off this Sunday, real-time interaction from the League, players, owners, media and announcers will be ubiquitous via Twitter, as the 140-character microblogging service continues to change the way basketball fans follow their favorite pastime.

Image credit: Mike Saechang

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