No playoff payoff in New York, Boston and Philly
New York. Boston. Philadelphia.
Over the last 26 years, teams from these cities have played in nine NBA Finals. But, for the first time in league history, none of the traditional powers from the nation's No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 television markets will be playing in the playoffs. Philadelphia was the last of the three to come into the league 57 years ago.
"For an NBA sponsor, the worst nightmare is to have two small-market teams in an NBA Finals," said Sal Galatioto, principal of Galatioto Sports Partners, a sports financial advisory firm. "If it's an anomaly, the league will be OK, but if it's a trend that continues, it's not good if the top media markets aren't well represented. The problem, of course, is the league can't do anything to control this."
Indeed, if things could be controlled, league officials certainly wouldn't have chosen the San Antonio Spurs -- who play in the nation's 37th-largest television market -- to win three titles in the last seven years. The 2003 Finals series between the Spurs and the New Jersey Nets was the lowest-rated Finals in league history.
It's no secret that the NBA has benefited from teams in large markets having the greatest players and winning championships. Larry Bird in Boston. Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Michael Jordan in Chicago. Patrick Ewing in New York (though he missed out on a title). Only four Finals since 1980 haven't featured these stars.
But the large markets haven't performed well of late. After going to four out of five NBA Finals, the Lakers missed the playoffs last year for only the fifth time in team history. A late charge by the Bulls allowed them to claim a playoff spot this year, but over the last six seasons the Bulls have a .433 winning percentage (175-309). Meanwhile, the Knicks -- who have spent more in payroll in the past six years than any other team in the league -- are 72 games under .500 over that time period.
So what happens to the league's health when these teams don't perform well? If there are any ill effects, the league doesn't seem to be feeling them yet.
"It's a different national audience than it was in 1979," said Rick Welts, president and chief operating officer of the Phoenix Suns, referring to the year in which the Knicks, Celtics and Bulls didn't make the playoffs. "Not having these teams in the playoffs might have been a death knell back then. But today, every team is in front of fans every day. LeBron James doesn't play in one of those places. Carmelo Anthony plays in Denver, and we've got Amare Stoudemire. I think we're at a point right now where the NBA doesn't rely on big markets to drive national interest. Compelling stories drive interest."
NBA commissioner David Stern reasons that having a losing season in today's world doesn't mean those teams are getting lost, due to the proliferation of the media.
"In the good old days, Chamberlain and Russell played in anonymity compared to Bird, Magic, Michael and Isiah," Stern said. "And even those guys played in less of a spotlight that our players today are playing in thanks to this saturated media environment."
Although it might not be ideal to have some of the largest markets missing the playoffs, the truth is that the teams themselves are hardly suffering.
Despite having the league's second-lowest win total (22), the Knicks have sold out most of their games. Their average attendance is still an impressive 18,910 fans per game, which is only 600 fewer fans per game than last year's total.
And even though the New Jersey Nets have been as aggressive as ever in Manhattan, Knicks officials say they expect the season-ticket renewal rate -- especially in the more expensive lower bowl -- to remain high.
"The lifelong affinity to a team does not change easily, and we have to make sure that we acknowledge those fans for that connection to our brand," said Knicks vice president of marketing Hunter Lochmann. "We think coming to Madison Square Garden is akin to the experience of going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park."
The Knicks TV ratings are up by a couple percentage points compared to last year's games broadcast on the MSG Network.
"It's one of the daily soap operas I check out," Celtics forward Paul Pierce told the Boston Herald earlier this month. "I think it's good for the NBA. You need something like this to keep people into it."
Even though the Knicks have the most expensive payroll in the league at $125 million, there is some solace for owner James Dolan in that Forbes Magazine valued the team at $543 million -- the highest-valued team in the league.
The Knicks, and to an even greater extent the Bulls, have proven that the larger markets are more resistant to bad play. Yes, Michael Jordan left after the 1998 season, but Chicago has continued to stay among the top teams in league attendance every season since.
"It's the cumulative result of 20 years worth of effort and initiatives in all aspects of the marketing puzzle," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' executive vice president of business operations. "Great sports town, great fans, a good advertising plan, large databases of Bulls fans accumulated over the years who we could directly market to, and the memory of how hard it once was to get a Bulls ticket for so many years are all contributing factors."
Schanwald says that financial performance for all teams is more critical than short-term, on-the-court performance.
"I believe it is somewhat important to have the large-market teams do well, but not at the expense of fiscal responsibility," said Schanwald, whose Bulls have continued to stay profitable thanks to low payrolls and great attendance. "It is far more important for the health of the league that every team compete on as level a playing field as possible economically in terms of giving their fans a sense that their team has an equal opportunity to win and contend for championships over time."
Despite missing the playoffs and never winning more than two in a row this year, the Celtics' attendance also is up -- by 6 percent to 16,811 per game. Thanks to the capacity of the TD Banknorth Garden, built in 1995, that's almost 2,000 more fans per game than packed the original Garden when the team was contending for (and winning) titles in the 1980s.
The same attendance rise cannot be seen in Philadelphia, where attendance has plummeted by 8 percent this season to 16,452 fans per game. It will mark the first time the 76ers have drawn less than 17,000 fans per game since the shortened 1998-99 season.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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