LeBron James may be an under 30 multi-millionaire, but his public service is commendable. James finds time in his busy schedule to spark new debate on the subject of NBA contraction. LeBron has been discussing the matter fairly openly in recent days.
Debate is the DNA of sports fandom and a divisive issue like contraction fits right in. Unfortunately, too many folks arguing in favor of contraction have no clue what they’re really suggesting. So let’s roll up our sleeves and really talk about it.
ARGUMENT: Cut 3 or 4 teams. This argument posits the option of taking LeBron’s advice to simply eradicate 3-4 current NBA teams. There are too many teams so eliminate those who aren’t doing well. Simple, right? Hang onto that thought while we progress toward the second portion of that thought. James and other proponents suggest the Memphis Grizzlies, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks as four unsuccessful franchises. The Grizzlies have failed in both Vancouver and Memphis, New Jersey has never fully embraced the Nets (not that Long Island did much better).
Atlanta hasn’t been relevant on the NBA map since Dominique Wilkins won the NBA Slam Dunk Competition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqAP5tmWl7M)in 1990 and the Los Angeles (Buffalo/San Diego) Clippers are the pure, unquestioned poster franchise for failure across all major sports in the Modern Era (six winning seasons in franchise history, two since moving to Los Angeles). Heck, they’re historically the third-best basketball team in their own building!
ARGUMENT: Bad attendance determines which teams are worthy of contraction. The Hawks draw 14,000 fans a game while the Lakers draw 19,000. Those 5,000 missing fans, 41 times a year … that’s the justification – despite the cold cash spent by the 14,000 fans who do show up. Not to mention the millions the networks (local and national) pay the NBA for the right to air their games – and the millions in Joe Johnson jerseys and Hawks hats and logo toasters (no, really!) the team and league earn? Right. Well true to a point, on a microcosmic level indeed. “Contractionists” may want to peruse the purview of Commissioner David Stern. Looking at the big picture - and its big money – the conversation is about more than a few dollars. It’s about a boatload of dollars!
ESPN posted their highest cumulative audience ever for their Christmas Day coverage. ABC’s double-header averaged a 5.5 Nielsen fast national rating, and ESPN’s three broadcasts raked in a 1.8 household rating. Compared with last year’s five televised games on Christmas, household ratings increased 45% on ABC and 20% on ESPN.
If there was no money to be made in Seattle, no one would care!!! Portland got to keep their team and they’re in the Pacific Northwest. Money is still green right? If there was no money to be had, the NBA wouldn’t have spent hundreds of thousands trying to find an arena solution in Sacramento. If there was no money to be had, the NBA wouldn’t have bailed out George Shinn and bought the New Orleans Hornets (who left Charlotte to replace the Jazz who moved to Utah to make more money to be replaced by yet another Charlotte expansion team.
If there was no money to be had, no thirst for pro basketball in non-glamour cities, taxpayers in Oklahoma City and Kansas City wouldn’t fund arenas without an NBA tenant in place. OKC built the Ford Center before Clay Bennett took over the Sonics, all on the hopes of landing an NBA squad. Kansas City (who used to BE an NBA city) did the same, and still waits.
You think all these multi-millionaire businessmen are dummies? You think Michael Gearon, who fought for years to settle the Atlanta Hawks’ ownership quarrel, did all that because there isn’t mad loot in owning an NBA team successful or not? How have the New York Knickerbockers survived all these years with terrible teams? Why have the Philadelphia 76ers fielded a more talented Old Timer’s Team (thank you 1983 Champions) than the active squad in ten years? How are the Cleveland Cavaliers doing since LeBron left town? About as well as they were doing BEFORE James joined the NBA!
Kill the Hawks and decimate (if not eliminate) the revenue the NBA makes in a major city (Atlanta, its suburbs – and then balance other NBA franchises in the region to expand that revenue circle). Seattle is the most recent instance but take your pick from historical examples. Is the financial yardstick when arena attendance drops below 75% on any given Tuesday night in December for a meaningless game against Phoenix? How myopicly dumb is that?
ARGUMENT: NBA talent is too thinly spread across 30-teams. The Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s rank high among the NBA’s all-time greatest teams that never won. Happens is all sports. Milwaukee had stars such as Sidney Moncrief, Bob Lanier and Terry Cummings and led by Don Nelson, who won NBA Coach of the Year honors twice during that decade. In one stretch, those 1980s Bucks won their division seven straight years while winning 50 or more games each of those years. They never won a title.
Here was their problem: the Philadelphia 76ers of Dr. J, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks, and the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. As a result, those Bucks never reached the NBA Finals - and rarely reached the Eastern Conference finals, but showed how gifted many of those other NBA teams were in the 1980s. Back then this meant less national TV exposure so the claim is that “no one” remembers how good this team was… despite the fact that we just proved it…
That the invisible “no one” remembers the very good ’80s Bucks is an argument for league constriction and talent stacking? People remember those Bucks. People love those Bucks. So the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t get over the hump was a feature of the ’80s lack of parity? What of the title-less Dallas Mavericks of the 2000s, a stacked team on its way to an 11th straight 50-win season? What of the absent-from-the-Finals Phoenix Suns, who won more than 60 twice but couldn’t get out of the West. Or how about the Seattle Sonics, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz of the 1990s? All incredible and consistent teams that couldn’t beat a certain behemoth?
It seems as though rampant NBA expansion of the 1990s and new millennium didn’t resolve or even improve an era of difficult roads to the championship. Hasn’t the NBA championship historically been won by teams with one of the mega Superstars, rather than a Bucks-like collection of “very good” players? Chicago had Jordan and Pippen and a supporting cast. Detroit had Thomas and Lambier and who else (funny that Dennis Rodman was on both those teams)? Kobe and Shaq. Stockton and Malone. Shaq and Penny. Marquee names with a supporting cast. Very rarely will you find Magic-Kareem-Worthy or Garnett-Pierce-Allen-Peyton.
It’s almost as if nostalgia has no connection with the case either for or against contraction. Nostalgia for 1950s and 1960s Boston Celtics teams doesn’t help the case of all the other teams who never had a chance to win -despite there being far fewer teams. Should we eradicate free agency and go back to the days of peach baskets too?
The NBA’s national television ratings are up by 30 percent in 2010, but the argument that those ratings would soar to new levels beyond Air Jordan by slicing some or all of its franchises… is inherently flawed.
The NHL is often a comparison tool since it also markets an indoor winter sport in many of the same arenas. Perhaps reallocation of teams to more “fertile” cities, metroplexes and regions could work – but how is this performed without excising landmark anchor franchises AND without offending fans in “lesser markets” who ardently support their team in Charlotte or Portland or Cleveland??????
Do we agree that the Los Angeles Clippers have wilted in the shadow of the LA Lakers? Why did the Lakers leave Minneapolis only to be replaced in the same untenable market 30 years later by the Timberwolves? Does the NBA do better in cities with no other major sports options (Portland or Salt Lake City) or in four-sport cities (Chicago, Boston, New York & Philadelphia)? What about Charlotte, New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle and Buffalo? All have sported NBA teams and lost them only to want them again. Are the Golden State Warriors making money in San Francisco or should they have stayed in Philadelphia? Why would the Clippers leave Buffalo and then San Diego only to play second fiddle in Los Angeles? Why not Columbus, OH? Pittsburgh? Why not a second team in New England (Providence? Hartford?) or a third in New York? Will the Nets move from the Meadowlands to Brooklyn really make a difference in their fanbase? Is there more revenue in stable franchises (Boston Celtics, New York Knicks) or modern barnstorming (holding cities for ransom every ten years with threats to leave)?
No one has all of the answers and I would defy anyone to come up with a grand master plan that doesn’t compromise some level of success. Every success and failure has a price. No one wants to lose their team. The league wants to make money. Go ahead, figure it out! When you come up with all these answers, please let the rest of us know!
Points of Concern:
1. It’s Basically a Six-Team League
Chicago (6), Detroit (3), LA Lakers (9), San Antonio Spurs (4), Houston Rockets (2) and Boston Celtics (4) have won 28 of the last 30 championships – with the exception of 1982 (Philadelphia) and 2006 (Miami). Talk about identity crisis for your league if six teams are basically swapping the trophy every other year.
How are Minnesota, Milwaukee, Indiana, Atlanta, Sacramento or New Orleans and fans of those teams supposed to feel good about this season? What do they Philadelphia, Golden State, Phoenix and Washington have to look forward to, honestly? It’s over even before a single game is played and 16 teams make the playoffs. Ergo, why even play the regular season?
To no one’s surprise, these teams rumored for possible contraction (Minnesota, Milwaukee, Indiana, Atlanta, Sacramento & New Orleans) can’t fill their arenas. As a fan of the Timberwolves for example, this would be less than a decade after the MLB Minnesota Twins were threatened for relocation and who can forget the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas only to be replaced by NHL expansion Minnesota Wild? Is it better to be the worst team in the league, with no hope to get better than have no team at all?
2. NBA Super Teams
While this has brought the most chatter from casual NBA fans like myself playing Fantasy Basketball is not the answer. Manifested in the marketing blitz the 2010 Free Agent spree delivered the most hype in years (ESPN’s The Decision) but overall it’s not good for the league for the above reasons.
While Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul on a relevant Knicks team with Amar’e Stoudemire is appealing in theory, it is reactionary as someone will have to stop the Lakers and Heat. Having superteams creates a need for more superteams – and therefore more terrible teams. A talented Knicks club would be good for the league, filling MSG and blowing up TV ratings on MSG and ESPN. However, there is a limited number of superteam possibilities, which negates the reason to play the regular season. If the NBA consists of six Superteams and 26 moribund teams, who will go to see them every night?
This “super team” idea, as cool as it is, only works if you live or are a fan of those markets. Every title a Carmelo-Paul-Stoudemire trio wins is one less for smug Kobe or sellout LeBron – but is also means consolidating talent makes it impossible to win without a superteam. While 6 or 8 superteams is more parity than we are used to in the NBA, it’s still just the same dysfunctional country club exclusive circus.
Which Teams Get Contracted and Why?
1. New Orleans Hornets
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Despite having a somewhat competitive and rising team of young players, the fact remains they play in a college town where they will always be second fiddle. While it was a good try by the NBA to save the failed Vancouver Grizzlies, it hasn’t worked, as evidenced by their waning attendance and stagnant records.
They also play in the NBA’s smallest market, the Witness Protection Program of the NBA where NBA free agents don’t want to live in a city with surprisingly little to offer to the NBA fan or player.
3. Toronto Raptors
Is anyone as surprised as me that they made it this long? Surely, losing tag-along Baby Bosh will be the final nail for this team if the league doesn’t lock out. Canadian Failure in Vancouver and Toronto!
No one wants to go through customs and cross the border to see basketball. While Toronto is like New York but cleaner, free agents won’t go there. Next is the weather, third, like Memphis, limited marketability (Detroit) which the NBA is driven upon, more than any other league. There are many reasons but the only one that matters is the bottom line.
4. Charlotte Bobcats
Why was this second expansion team placed in Charlotte after the first one failed? Just by coincidence my kill list includes two Eastern teams and two from the West, which should make realignment easier. Charlotte was sold by former BET founder Robert Johnson for $175M to Michael Jordan, after he (Johnson) paid $300M for it pre-2004 when they were founded. Charlotte lost the Hornets and will lose the Bobcats too. At least last time the city of New Orleans was happy to get a second franchise (after their first team failed)! This time no one will even notice. Charlotte can’t keep free agents and did anyone notice how they traded all their draft picks so they didn’t have to pay them? Hmmmm.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Weather issues hurt them, small market, lack of on-court success outside of 2004, perceived marketability issues (although Kevin Garnett busted that myth) but basically a labeled failed franchise rather than a franchise with a marketable brand. There is hope but not a lot.
More of a candidate for relocation (Las Vegas) than actual contraction. They can’t get a new arena, which is perhaps needed more than anywhere else in the league, and have ownership issues. When has this team ever been relevant? When they drafted Michael Olewickandi? Back your bags guys. Moving truck is coming.
So… what is the solution? Fewer teams take jobs away but ensure fuller arenas – or would that reduce TV revenue and punish the 14,000 fans at the gate? Would more competitive teams mean more interesting playoffs and therefore greater TV revenue OR does that discourage paying customers at the arena? Reduction of teams and realignment would save money on travel costs but is that enough? Would reducing the number of regular season games help or just reduce revenue? Keep the salary cap? Lose the salary cap? Let the free market decide? Improve the NBA-DL? What do you think?
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me email@example.com