The 2010 Sportsman of the Year Debate… The Once and Future King

December 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan, and Optimist Prime.

In 2010 LeBron James not only redefined himself, but perhaps all of professional sports as well. Though he has been thoroughly scrutinized and lambasted for the way he set about this redefinition, it may just be the price one has to pay for experiencing growing pains as one of the most public sports figures in the world.

Critics, fans, and whole cities came to despise LeBron James in the wake of The Decision, but I believe his announcement on national T.V. was ultimately more good than bad, more help than harm, and more hope than heartbreak.

Everyone thought they knew LeBron James best. Cleveland, New York, and Chicago all thought they understood the man and launched campaigns to appeal to what they thought motivated him. In Cleveland, they appealed to his heart, making passionate pleas to his sense of loyalty. Chicago played to his competitive nature adding players – like Carlos Boozer – that most analysts thought would put James in a position to win, given his particular style of play. New York appealed to King James’ ego offering him the treasury and throne in what may very well be the capital of the sports world. But in the end LeBron shocked them all and did what few saw coming before the day The Decision, announcing he would take less money and share the limelight in order to assemble quite possibly the most the most dominant super team the world has ever seen.

LeBron did the what we all believed was unthinkable. As one of if not the most sought after free agents in sports history he chose team victories over individual accolades, he chose championships over salary and sponsorships, and he put the urge to win above self. While this made him a heel in Chicago, a fool in New York, and public enemy number one in Cleveland, it also made him the Sportsman of the Year in my book.

Profound Consequences

I am certain that those loyal to teams spurned by James will be slow to see what he did as a positive (it might take Sports Geek and Bleacher Fan 50 years or so to come around), but that is exactly what it was – a good thing for both professional sports and athletes. LeBron proved it was possible for a player to put competitiveness and team success above self and still make it a profitable proposition.

While it is a crushing blow for sports mega-markets like New York, it opens up a world of possibilities for other franchises throughout the league. Maybe it is a sign that a fat stack of cash doesn’t guarantee players like it used to, and then again maybe its not. But it definitely provides a glimmer of hope for the rest of the league. Likewise, I am certain that franchises like Cleveland will view this as the nail in the coffin on the long term competitiveness of small markets without squads of superstars to attract more, but that is not necessarily the case either. This decision was also about who LeBron wanted to play alongside with as much as it was about the competitiveness.

Before the off-season arrived, James had been making public musings about free agents basically colluding for the betterment of a particular franchise. He suggested that if players like Bosh and James decide together where they thought they could make the biggest impact they could change the NBA’s landscape in a big way, and that’s exactly what they did. While maybe not completely within the rules, it does evolve the empowerment of the modern free agent.

Since James’ epic decision there has already been evidence of trickle down effects in other sports. Major League Baseball recently watched the hot stove pursuit of ace pitcher Cliff Lee take a James-ian turn as he turned down more lucrative contracts with New York and Texas in order to sign with a club he simply wanted to play for more. Just as was the case with King James, Lee’s addition to superstar players like Roy Halladay, Cole Hammels, and Roy Oswalt makes for one of the most dominant pitching staffs in team history, possibly MLB history. This trend could very well spread to the NFL this off-season and reshape the competitive landscape there as well. The fallout from James’ choice is as immense in its magnitude as it is controversial.

King Sized Perks

LeBron made his off-season choice known in a grandiose TV special that exceeded even the wildest of expectations in terms of anticipated hype. While “The Decision” may not have lived up to the anticipation in terms of climactic drama, it no doubt captured the attention of the nation. ESPN’s one hour special on the LeBron’ signing was the highest rated program on television the night it aired, and clearly caught the attention of more than just serious NBA fans. What’s more is a large portion of the profits from the special were donated to the Boys and Girls Club. Critics point to the fact that he could have done more, but in reality he could have done nothing at all. When was the last time you remember an athlete using their free agent leverage for charity? Having trouble? That’s my point exactly. Like a noble monarch, King James let his benefits trickle down to the people and that is a gesture seen far too seldom in sports today.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the NBA…or at least I wasn’t before this season, but all the craze of this post-season’s free agency carried over to the regular season and now I’m hooked. I’ve purchased six tickets to NBA games this season (one of which is a Miami Heat game), which is 600% more than I have purchased in the last decade. While my personal habits do not make for a scientifically significant study, I do believe there is something to be said for LeBron making the NBA more popular during the off-season.

I realized I may not have made a believer out of anyone, but I feel that LeBron James deserves more credit than he has received. He was the biggest story in all of sports this year and the positive impact of that legacy earns him my vote for Sportsman of The Year.

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The NFL Becoming a Players League Debate… For Love of the Blame

December 12, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Bleacher Fan.

The NFL is being ruined right in front of our very eyes, and the players are to blame.

While I am normally the first one to suggest that a player or team with even a miniscule amount of leverage should exploit it to the fullest for their personal gain, even I can see that there is a limit. Clearly the NFL has reached its tipping point. Players have gone mad with power and the league presently teeters atop the precipice of a very steep and slippery slope. The empowerment of the modern era NFL player has come at a steep cost – the sanctity of contracts and the authority of the coaches – and sadly the game as a whole may soon suffer for it. For a very long time.

This, however, is not a new story, and the current state of affairs in the NFL did not just happen overnight. The writing has been on the wall for a very long time. Think back to the 2004 draft when Eli Manning was able to force his way to the New York Giants, rather than stay with the team which drafted him out right – the San Diego Chargers. Since then players have been able to threaten, pout, and generally blackmail their way on to the teams of their choosing with virtually no recourse.

The league could have – and more importantly, should have – stopped moves like this as they occurred. Instead, the league stood idly by while their authority was diminished in front of a league of hundreds of players just beginning to realize the leverage and power the NFL was allowing them to control. Now it is common to see players like Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall publically clashing with their coach and team management in hopes of agitating their way to a new team. Many times the players are successful, and sometimes they are not – like Albert Haynesworth this off-season (Editor’s Note: And, regular season too?). But, the point remains that players are very much aware of their newfound leverage in controlling the future.

The drama that unfolded between the Redskins and super star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth highlights the fact that the NFL is a player dominated league. Even though Haynesworth failed to force the Redskins to trade him or to rearrange their defensive scheme to suit him, he has clearly held the front office hostage throughout the season. His recent suspension demonstrates that the ‘Skins never gained control of the situation, and this “punishment” certainly does not serve as a deterrent to Haynesworth, who didn’t want to play for Washington this season anyways. It is no deterrent for any other player wanting to diva their way into a more preferable scenario.

This behavior is not limited to individuals, either. Through the sandbagging actions of NFL teams it can be ascertained that there is a much bigger problem on the horizon. Over the course of the 2010 season, both the Cowboys and Vikings seem to have made their lack of support for their head coach known through underachieving play. While it can’t be proven that players were throwing games, it seems fairly evident that they weren’t trying their all, and a large reason for this seems to be their lack of confidence in their head coach. Whatever the reason, both teams’ head coaches were fired and it certainly looks like the players masterminded the situations. This past off-season the players won’t just be screwing over one team with their actions, but rather the whole league when they force a work stoppage in 2011.

Like it or not, it has become a matter of fact that NFL players call all of the shots these days. There is a certain sad irony about a league which prides itself on parity would have such a disproportionate balance of power between players and the rest of the league.

Players are starting to wield some very real power in the league. They are forcing trades, demanding their own playing schemes, and even getting any employee who stands in their way fired. Perhaps the NFL should be renamed the NFPL – the National Football Players League.

While it’s not a very appealing name, and I seriously doubt that it will catch on anytime soon, it would be a far more fitting name because it would recognize those with all the real power and authority in the league – the players!

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The NFL Becoming a Players League Debate… Maintaining a Delicate Balance

December 12, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless

I have not been impressed with the actions of many players around the NFL recently.

For example, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings quit on their coaches, Wade Phillips and Brad Childress. They weren’t happy with the way things were going early in the season, and so these so-called professionals allowed locker room politics to affect their play on the field. As a fan, I am furious that these professional athletes were allowed to get away with anything less than their very best.

Once their respective coaches were fired, though, they magically became successful teams on the field again. Hardly a coincidence.

There were several marquis holdouts this year. Darrelle Revis, Vincent Jackson, and Logan Mankins are but a few names you will find on the list of those players who sat out some portion of the season.

In Denver, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler both managed to orchestrate their own trades from the Broncos, and Brett Favre has danced around retirement for three years, now, stringing several different franchises along while he waffled in his decisions.

Yes, players have been commanding a lot of attention in the NFL. And with the new CBA upcoming, the NFLPA is actively working to secure new rights for the players of the league.

But to declare that the NFL is following the NBA in becoming a league controlled by the players is a gross overstatement.

Players will always test the boundaries of a league. I do not blame them at all. The system in the NFL is structured in such a way that the players in the NFL are allowed to hold out on their contracts and demand trades. I may not agree with the system, but I cannot blame the players for taking advantage of the system as it exists today.

There is a difference between players maximizing the system as it exists today, and players taking over control of the league.

Sure, Darrelle Revis was able to hold out in his contract, and ended up getting himself a better deal from the New York Jets. But for every Darrelle Revis, there is an Albert Haynesworth.

Haynesworth, owner of the most lucrative defensive contract in the history of the NFL, was just suspended for the remainder of the season for conduct detrimental to his team. What was that conduct, you ask? He did the exact same thing that Darrelle Revis did – he did not abide by the terms of his contract.

In a player’s league, Haynesworth’s actions would have been accommodated, his demands met, and his new coach silenced. He is (or was) one of the premier players in the league, is a major difference maker when he is on the field, and a franchise in a player’s league would never dream of upsetting an athlete of his caliber, especially after investing the amount of money that the Redskins did in acquiring him.

Or how about Vincent Jackson? After a Pro Bowl season a year ago, Jackson felt that he deserved a much more lucrative contract, but the San Diego Chargers disagreed. This situation became very nasty as the weeks passed by, and Jackson was very public in his criticism of the Chargers’ organization. Tensions grew to such a heated point that many assumed Jackson would never wear a Chargers uniform again.

Well, the Chargers called his bluff, and guess who suited up for San Diego against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.

These are just the most recent examples where player egos and demands are being held in check. Unlike the NBA, where players like LeBron James have completely hijacked the league, the NFL has an established system which allows players room to negotiate, but still retains enough control to ensure that the players’ demands would never endanger the overall stability of the league.

It is the give and take of those player/owner negotiations which create a balanced system to the benefit of everyone involved.

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The NBA Contraction Debate Verdict

October 28, 2010

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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The NBA Contraction Debate

October 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Babe Ruthless.

It seems these days like the only people making money in the NBA are the athletes.

While players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Amar’e Stoudemire were recently awarded contracts at or beyond $100M each, the collective NBA teams posted a net loss last year of $400M.

Obviously, a business of any kind cannot sustain itself if it continues to lose money.

So in an effort to combat this financial predicament, NBA commissioner David Stern has stated a desire to see the players’ collective salaries reduced by $750M-$800M in order to reverse the negative trend so the NBA can get a return on investment.

One such idea that has been floated to help support this process – an idea that will be on the table at the upcoming owners’ meetings – is the possibility of a league contraction, as some within the league feel that a reduction of teams would provide a remedy to the imbalance between player salary and league revenue.

Which brings us to our debate topic for today: With the financial losses posted by the NBA recently, and the prospect of more losses on the horizon, should the NBA contract some teams?

Clearly this is not a decision that David Stern or the collective NBA owners will be taking lightly. Their continued goal to this point has always been the growth of the league, and expansion has been a major part of that growth. The NBA is arguably at its peak in terms of popularity among the fans, and to face the prospect of eliminating teams from the league would be extremely disappointing for everyone involved.

In evaluating today’s topic, Sports Geek believes that NBA contraction is the way to go, and will argue that “trimming the fat” will be better for the league as a whole. Meanwhile, Babe Ruthless feels that contraction would not be the best solution, and will argue that the NBA should not consider this as a viable option.

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The NBA Contraction Debate… Less is More

October 27, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

Yes, less is more… and I’m not referring to the Miami Heat point total from Tuesday night’s season opener. No, my reference is to successful businesses in today’s modern business landscape. Am I pro downsizing? Of course not… but successful businesses cannot sustain themselves long term if they are consistently losing money. Guess what, folks? The NBA is consistently losing money. Bravo to David Stern (who, for the record, I do not like) and league officials for acknowledging that fact and proposing an obviously unpopular – but shrewd and smart – solution by contracting the league.

Let’s all put our thinking caps on and consider why the NBA expanded in the first place. The business climate of the late 1980s was dominated by one word – growth. The more the better. The faster the EVEN better. Growth was the ambition that superseded all other reasonable concerns. It was the only thing that mattered. Long term thinking did not enter into the equation as it often derailed the conversation regarding growth.

The late 1980s saw four expansion teams appear within two years. First, in 1988, the league welcomed the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets, then in 1989 the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves joined up. Six short years later – still in the full swing of growth in the build up to the dotcom bust – two MORE teams were added for good measure in the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. None of the teams were berthed with a long term plan for sustainability or even a good solution for how the league was going to create a talent pipeline to maintain and boost the level of competition fans had grown accustomed to with a more concise league structure that made both product and economic sense.

Here’s more business sense for you. The Charlotte Bobcats were purchased for $175M by Michael Jordan. The seller, Robert L. Johnson, paid $300M for the team. Johnson lost a whole lot of money.

In the most recent evaluation of which teams in the NBA made money and which teams lost money, a surprisingly large number of teams lost money. In fact, 40 percent of the league’s franchises LOST money. More shocking, FIVE of the teams that are losing money are actually successful, winning teams. The Portland Trailblazers lost $20M, the Dallas Mavericks lost $17M (though the majority of that may have been in Mark Cuban fines), following by Orlando, Atlanta, and New Orleans. Perhaps the economy impacted a few of those teams, but all 40 percent? That’s doubtful. The league’s costs are out of control and drastic measures must be taken to reign in the poor business decisions from years gone by.

Does the NBA currently have teams that do not contribute much in the way of notoriety of financial return? Yes. Do these franchises in peril have a track record of success but have recently fallen on hard times? No. If the franchises aren’t functioning as they should, and there is no hope of digging them out without deepening the bad investment, why not cut bait? Needless to say, the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, New Orleans Hornets, and Minnesota Timberwolves are not successfully functioning NBA franchises, and they have never had enough success to warrant further investment.

It’s time to trim the bottom feeders in the NBA. Think about it, only good can come from it. The talent pool is richer as there is a higher concentration of talent available to few teams. The franchises that require the most financial attention from the league are now taken out of play. The promotional resources the NBA has available are now concentrated better on the franchises that warrant the attention. Each of those factors is a big success for the NBA.

And, most importantly, the league will save a whole lot of money in player costs, enough to keep the league financially successful and viable.

The NBA is in an interesting time right now. Whether LeBron and his dodgy and insulting new Nike commercial like it or not, he is the villain of the NBA, along with his cohorts down in Miami. For the first time since perhaps the early 1980s the league has a legitimate villain and the suddenly appealing Kobe Bryant playing the likely uncomfortable role of league “good guy.” In short, the league has more attention and popularity than it has grown accustomed to in this decade. It needs to better focus its resources to grow the league’s popularity and diminish the cost of doing bad business.

Contraction will likely suck for those cities that are impacted by it, but the people in those cities had the chance to support the team and chose not to. No blame to pass, that’s just reality. The league must become financially solvent again, but then it has to honor its covenant to the fans and avoid the temptations of rapid growth that lured officials in with its siren song in the late 1980s. Unfortunately for some, contraction is a good place to start.

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The NBA Contraction Debate… Downsizing is Out of the Question

October 27, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Sports Geek.

Right now is a very important time for the NBA. The league stands at the brink of a make or break scenario that holds huge implications for the league. The NBA is suffering significant financial losses while at the same time staring down a lockout for the 2011 season. Right now the NBA is peaking in terms of popularity and the NFL is teetering on the verge of a hugely unpopular work stoppage. The NBA could see major gains in its fan base if it ends up being the only show in town… or it could drive away fans in droves if multi-million dollar athletes decide to sit out during the biggest economic recession of our time.

With the NBA figuring to experience major losses this season, it appears that commissioner David Stern and company are looking at any and every option to stay profitable, including cutting franchises. While on the surface this looks like a good first step towards getting into the black it appears the commish isn’t looking at the long term big picture.

So Long Small Market Teams, Basketball Is Big Business

The NBA is one of the few professional sports that is somewhat small market friendly. The NBA currently has franchises in cities like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, and Charlotte. These are certainly large cities but they are by no means the sprawling metropolises of most big sports cities (i.e. Boston, New York, L.A.). In the grand scheme of things the sport might not implode if the Grizzlies or Thunder weren’t apart of the 2011 season, but it certainly would be a major loss to the fans.

Right now then NBA has cracked markets that other sports franchises have not, and that is certainly a public relations booster for them. But if the small market teams get the axe because the league is in the red, it will be a huge step back for a sport that is more inclusive than most. Obviously the NBA is a business and it can only afford to operate at a loss for so long, but pulling the rug out from under a franchise, no matter how small, is sure to make enemies of a sport.

For instance, when the Hornets abandoned Charlotte there was a lot of ill will toward professional basketball amongst the people of the Queen City. Sure all wounds heal with time, and slowly but surely the city is embracing the Bobcats, but that has been a slow and bumpy journey at best. North Carolina was college basketball country to begin with, and a pro team was a risky venture. Then when the people of Charlotte felt they got burned by the NBA it made for awkward bedfellows moving forward with future business ventures. The city opposed funding for a new coliseum for the Bobcats and attendance generally struggled in comparison with the Carolina Panthers. I do not suggest every market would turn against basketball for football and baseball, but it is a plausible result. One that the NBA cannot afford.

Cutting Teams Should Be A Last Resort Not A First Option

Cutting teams is a desperation move for which the league must be fully prepared. The fallout from such an unpopular decision is sure to have ramifications for years to come. When a team or a league abandons a fan base, they turn fans off for years to come. That is not something the NBA, or any sport, can afford.

Popularity is 90 percent perception and 10 percent substance. While that is not a mathematical law, it is a fair enough assessment of the way the world often sees sports. That is not to say a sport’s popularity is not influenced by the excitement of the action on the court or on the field, but rather that a sport’s popularity is influenced by things other than the successes of its best players, high profile teams, or biggest events.

Popularity is often a matter of how the fans perceive they are being treated. If a sport entertains fans, gives them great value, and does not betray their trust, it earns loyalty. But that loyalty can be lost.

For instance, when baseball went on strike, and then the curtain was torn down on the steroid era, the popularity of the sport was dealt a black eye, one that the sport is arguably still not over the hump from today. One of the most damaging legacies of those fiascoes was quite simply that the fans felt abused. Baseball fans are an intensely loyal bunch, and the league allowed the fans trust to be betrayed by performance enhancing drugs and the greed of the players union. Basketball is not above being pulled down by similar circumstances and culling a franchise, no matter how big or how small is public relations suicide.

Of course basketball has to make money, but cutting franchises is not the answer. Calling it league “contraction” does not change the fact that it is telling millions (yes, literally millions) of fans that they were not important enough to continue to entertain. The league must find another way or face the backlash of a scorned public that finds another way to spend its money than supporting a game that doesn’t support them back.

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