Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle

Updated: May 26, 2004, 10:34 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

One by one, the numbered balls popped up -- Six! -- through the tube at the top of the hopper -- Two! -- in professional sports' only high-stakes game of chance -- Three! -- until Fortuna finally smiled on -- Twelve! -- the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It was a year ago that the Cavs hit the jackpot of all lotteries, winning the No. 1 pick in that NBA draft and the right to make LeBron James the centerpiece of the team's rebuilding process. King James, the local prep hoops phenom who made national headlines, suddenly had his kingdom and the Cavaliers would go on to enjoy perhaps the greatest financial turnaround in league history.

Dwight Howard
Howard could become the second consecutive high schooler taken No. 1 overall.

James' jersey was tops on the league's merchandise sales list. An additional 7,000 fans, on average, crowded into Gund Arena. And the Cavs cashed in on an additional $13 million in gross ticket revenue.

"Everyone in northeast Ohio knew about LeBron before the rest of the world did," Cavaliers president Len Komoroski said. "He was so highly publicized, he overcame the fact that he was coming straight from high school and ultimately became an impact player."

Although executives of the Orlando Magic, who received the rights to the No. 1 pick on Wednesday night, would relish landing an impact player the likes of James, a similar windfall doesn't appear to be in the cards for the winner of this year's draft lottery. UConn's Emeka Okafor and Atlanta prep star Dwight Howard, those atop most prognosticators' lists of draft-eligible players, lack the star qualities that put LeBron on a first-name basis with sports fans.

Though history has proven that the value of the first pick in the draft can be determined by a variety of factors -- the player's charisma, his performance, the team's potential for market growth and, ultimately, its success on the court -- nonetheless, with the No. 1 pick comes new hope for fans and new marketing opportunities for the team.

Capacity to expand

Lightning struck twice in Orlando, first in 1992 and again in 1993, and the Magic went from expansion fledgling to playoff contender.

The Magic had the luck of being the first team in the ping-pong history of the lottery to receive the rights to back-to-back No. 1 picks, which it used to select Shaquille O'Neal (in 1992) and trade for Penny Hardaway (in '93). Two years later, the two led the team to the NBA Finals, filling the Orlando Arena in the process.

"Getting that No. 1 pick two years in a row was worth multi-millions," Magic senior vice president Pat Williams said. "We were one of the most visible franchises in the league and we were sold out game after game."

But the Magic's attendance is hurting these days. An average of 14,371 fans, the second fewest in franchise history, passed through the turnstiles to watch the team struggle to a league-worst 21-61 record this season. Because of it, though, the Magic had the best chance -- 1-in-4 -- of landing the No. 1 pick again this year and came up a winner.

Emeka Okafor
An experienced winner like Emeka Okafor is just what the Bulls need.

It is uncertain though, whether drafting either Okafor, who helped the University of Connecticut capture the NCAA championship this spring, or Howard will fill TD Waterhouse Centre as Yao Ming helped do when the Houston Rockets selected the 7-foot-6 center from China with the first pick in the 2002 draft. In Yao's first two seasons in the NBA, Rockets ticket sales swelled by an average of 4,000 fans per game.

Filling thousands more seats can translate to upwards of $12 million in revenue over the course of the season for an NBA franchise, according to Hadrian Shaw, a sports business analyst and author of "Shaw's Pro Basketball Blue Book." For example, if a player helps a team sell 3,600 regular seats and 400 club seats per game, it likely will sell an additional 1,000 parking spaces. Fans also spend an average of $10 on concessions. A No. 1 pick with mass appeal can help the team sell or retain lucrative sponsorship packages, as well, Shaw said.

That's just how the Rockets capitalized on Yao's arrival. The team signed a six-year sponsorship deal with Chinese beer-maker Yanjing that is worth at least $1 million annually, and it has forged alliances with domestic companies looking to market to Asian-Americans in the United States, as well as viewers watching Rockets games beamed back to China. It's more than coincidental that Toyota, the Japanese automaker, signed on as the naming-rights sponsor of the Rockets' new arena, which opened this past season.

"With Yao, we got an incredibly talented player," said Tad Brown, the Rockets' vice president of corporate development. "Having him on our team also allowed us to serve as a vehicle for companies hoping to use the NBA to present its product outside the United States in China."

Drafting the local hero

It would be tempting for the Atlanta Hawks to try to duplicate the Cavaliers' formula for success and hope that Howard could become this year's LeBron James. But the Hawks likely won't get to do that, as they will now pick sixth in the draft.

The Hawks suffered through a dismal 2003-04 season, a 28-54 record attracting only 13,798 per game. Howard has local appeal -- he starred at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy -- but might not remain on the board by the sixth pick. While an Atlanta-based player like Howard could help spike ticket sales, the Hawks' top executive says the team plans to address long-term objectives with whomever it selects.

"Drafting a local player is icing on the cake, but it's certainly not the reason you draft a player over another," Bernie Mullin said before the lottery. Mullin is the chief executive of Atlanta Spirit LLC, which owns the Hawks and NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, as well as Philips Arena. "It's [general manager] Billy Knight's choice to make the best basketball decision."

Mullin estimates that less than 5 percent of drafted players can affect a team's ticket sales. That percentage is likely to decrease, he said, with the continued influx of lesser-known players that make the leap to the NBA whether it's from the high school ranks, one year into college or from overseas.

Nothing beats winning

It would be easy to count the Cavs' selection of LeBron among the great success stories in sports history. In reality, his place in basketball lore will take years to assess. While he holds the promise of a new-era Michael Jordan, dominating nightly highlight shows and earning Rookie of the Year honors, James still has much to prove. His future remains very much in front of him.

But can they sell tickets?
Year Player Team Attendance*
2003 LeBron James Cavs +278,416
2002 Yao Ming Rockets +83,939
2001 Kwame Brown Wizards +200,914**
2000 Kenyon Martin Nets -87,050
1999 Elton Brand Bulls -11,355
1998 M. Olowokandi Clippers +12,090***
1997 Tim Duncan Spurs +78,814
1996 Allen Iverson 76ers +137,151
*In No. 1 pick's rookie season
**Coincided with Jordan's comeback
***lockout, projected over 41 games
Likewise, Williams said he isn't interested in the nay-saying of prognosticators who have been quick to judge this year's NBA draft class for lacking personality and marketing potential. The long-term value of the No. 1 pick, he said, shouldn't be judged by his economic impact on the team during his rookie season alone.

"No one knows how good those guys are going to be in four or five years," Williams said. "Because of last year with LeBron and (Carmelo Anthony with the Denver Nuggets), we're used to these kids performing right away, but there's plenty of value in the long term as well."

Since Jordan walked away from Chicago after leading the Bulls to their sixth NBA championship in 1998, the team has struggled to recast its image after slipping to the bottom of the league standings. The Bulls landed the No. 1 pick (Elton Brand in 1999) once in their five previous appearances in the draft lottery. But despite a parade of highly touted draft selections -- from high school players Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler (2001) to Duke star Jay Williams (2002) -- the team found itself in the lottery again this year and won the right to draft third.

The reward may still await the team down the road on the court, though more than 19,000 fans per game have attended Bulls games over the past three seasons.

"Of course hype will sell tickets in the short run whether a guy can play or not," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' executive vice president of business operations. "But it won't sustain itself if a guy can't play."

It was Jordan's presence on the court in Washington, in fact, that boosted the Wizards' attendance after the team selected Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. In three seasons since jumping from high school, Brown has been anything but an impact player, averaging 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds.

James' impressive rookie season, nonetheless, offers Cavs' fans hope for even better seasons ahead. With James leading the way, the Cavs doubled their win total last season, and fans turned out en masse when the team made a late-season run for the playoffs, selling out nine of its final 11 games while in postseason contention. After not making the playoffs, the Cavaliers were back in the lottery and won the rights to the 10th pick.

So far the demand for tickets next season already has generated a 90 percent renewal of last season's season-ticket holders. Apparently most people to see first hand whether he's really as good as hyped.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter