The NBA Contraction Debate Verdict

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Babe Ruthless.

Considering the fact that I am an expectant father, with a child due just a few weeks from now, I have already developed an irrational fear of the word ‘Contraction.’ And it seems that, considering the context of this debate, that negative connotation is quite justified.

To boil this debate down into its most simplistic form, and to put it into terms that many people around the country can truly relate to, the conversation about NBA contraction is really a conversation about layoffs.

The “L” word

The business (NBA) is losing money, and cannot afford to operate under its current structure. As a result, the business (NBA) is forced to choose which is the lesser of two evils – force a pay cut, or proceed with layoffs.

As Babe Ruthless points out, contraction should be perceived only as a viable option when there are none other worth pursuing. A decision like this would not only affect the teams facing the cull, but would also seriously impact the cities and fans which support, and are supported by, those franchises.

For a league like the NBA who already is struggling financially, the bad PR from league contraction and the fan reaction from those cities which would lose their franchises could be very damaging.

But all those premonitions of gloom and doom from Babe Ruthless still did not provide enough justification to me that league contraction was the wrong decision to make. As such, I am awarding the verdict for this debate to Sports Geek, although for a moment, Sports Geek’s own argument almost convinced me to go the other way.

Identifying the root cause

Sports Geek points to franchises such as the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers as teams with winning records that were losing money. So out of curiosity, I checked the attendance numbers from last season to see how those two clubs (for example) fared at the gate.

According to last year’s statistics, the Mavericks averaged 19,994 fans per home game at American Airlines Center, an arena that holds 20,000 at capacity. Likewise, the Blazers averaged 20,497 per game at the Rose Garden Arena, which holds 20,630 spectators at capacity.

Folks, those are sold out seasons.

The Blazers and the Mavericks are not suffering from lack of fan support. And when you look at the rest of the league, only the Philadelphia 76’ers, New Jersey Nets, and Memphis Grizzlies played to an average crowd of less than 75% capacity (compare that to the MLB, where 17 different teams drew average crowds of fewer than 75% capacity).

The real problem is, DESPITE that fan support for home teams, that the cost of paying the athletes has exceeded the amount of revenue that is even possible to be gained. If a sellout will only draw in $2M in sales for each game, how can you be expected to pay $3M in salary?

And even with revenues being generated from TV contracts, advertising, and merchandise, these teams are STILL paying more than they are making.

Normally, this is a problem that can be corrected either by a) cutting players’ salaries or b) raising ticket prices, rather than having to resort to league contraction, which Sports Geek argues is the answer. But just as I was ready to place my seal of approval and award victory to Babe Ruthless, I noticed something very interesting that ultimately changed my mind – attendance statistics for NBA teams on the road.

Big names sell games

Obviously, teams with winning records should be able to garner support from their hometown fans. But it is when those teams go on the road that you find out their value as it is perceived by the REST of the league. The New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, for example, will sell out no matter where they are playing. They appeal not only to their home town fans, but they are a draw to EVERYONE.

So, how did the Blazers and Mavs fare on the road?

Portland averaged a road crowd of only 16,546 (nearly 4000 fewer fans than when they played at home), while Dallas drew 17,129 (nearly 3000 fewer fans). And that trend was not exclusive to those two teams, either.

In fact, there were only two teams in the entire NBA (the Cavaliers and the Lakers), who averaged sellouts on the road. And the not too surprising reason those two teams managed the feat is simple – LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Every other team (even championship contenders like the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, and Phoenix Suns) failed to attract people on the road to the same extent that they managed at home. A problem, as Sports Geek points out, created by an utter lack of star power in the league.

The gap in marketability between players like LeBron or Kobe, and players like Mehmet Okur and Chris Kamen is far too great. There just aren’t enough “faces” in the NBA to fully support 30 different NBA franchises. Then, when you compound that lack of star power with the grossly overinflated contract amounts that the athletes are earning today, you find yourself in a very bleak financial situation.

People just don’t care to go out on a Wednesday night in the middle of December to see Carlos Delfino lead the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in scoring against the Roy Hibbert led Indiana Pacers.

Real value must be established

In a concentrated market, Chris Bosh is not a $100M athlete. Likewise, a guy like Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who averages only 24 minutes per game over his career, is not a $50M athlete. But when you dilute the talent level to the extent that the NBA has, players like Bosh and Varejao BECOME superstars simply by comparison to the weaker talent around them. They APPEAR to be superstars, and can cash in as such.

A concentrated player pool, played within a league of fewer teams, would allow for a much better product to be put on the court. Player salaries would more accurately reflect the talent levels in the league, and the “business” of professional basketball could be righted.

It’s time to trim the fat. Addition by subtraction is the answer, and an NBA in concentrated form will help everyone remaining in the league to be successful for many years to come.

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