How many fans does it take to support a league?

If you missed our podcast with Shawn Ryan, writer and executive producer for such landmark shows as "The Shield," it included a discussion about the challenges inherent in building an audience for a highly serialized show. There's a built-in risk of losing audience when viewers feel missing an episode or two makes following the plot too difficult. It's a problem the industry takes very seriously:

"Listen, TV execs will show you these scary charts that say even the people who describe themselves as an intense fan of your show will on average only watch about one out of every four episodes. So if you want to get an audience of, say, 3 million for FX or 10 million people to watch your show on network TV, what you really need to do is have 40 million people consider themselves to be a fan of your show, and in any given week 10 million will show up to watch."

Meaning it's hard enough to build a faithful audience under the best of circumstances, and requires deeper penetration of the market than simple viewership measurements might suggest. Adding structural elements potentially making that process more difficult is, put mildly, problematic.

Ryan's comments apply to the NBA's labor situation, as well.

In a lot of ways, we cover the league like a highly serialized television show, following big storylines, tracking characters, and trying to figure out how A impacts B and could change C 10 games down the road. Many fans consume it that way, too. But a far larger number are more casual, passing in and out of the NBA world depending on countless other things vying for their attention.

How each demographic reacts to the lockout I don't know, but one thing is undeniably true: To sustain the sort of growth the NBA has seen while continuing to expand in ways they'd like requires an enormous number of people consuming the product, wildly outstripping the amount of people in an NBA arena or watching on TV on any given night.

Ultimately, whether the NBA misses a month or a season, the die-hards (most of them, at least) will come back. Angrily and with resentment, but back nonetheless. I'm confident Lakers fans would again fill the Staples Center. But die-hards and Lakers ticket buyers don't constitute the bulk of the basketball viewing public. In a world with ever expanding entertainment options, particularly on television, and in the face of a lousy economy, what happens to everyone else?

It's not a stretch to say steroids were required to save baseball after it lost the World Series in '94. If they lose much, or even all of the season, what would the NBA require?