State of the NBA Nation Is Strong

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Is the NBA doing so well that it’s sports’ answer to the Denver mint? Retiring Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Russell Granik won’t exactly answer that question, but the answer has to be yes. The NBA averaged 17,558 fans per game during the recently concluded regular season, topping last season’s all-time record of 17,314 fans per game. The league also reported that 21,595,804 people paid to see NBA games and that arenas were filled to 91.4% capacity.

The television ratings, which were mediocre during the regular season, are up for the playoffs, and the NBA is increasing its presence internationally with the intent of capturing a sizeable portion of China’s sports market. Having Yao Ming in the league is, of course, helpful in that regard, and sending the NBA’s best to the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008 should enhance the league’s image that much more.

Speaking on Tuesday at the NBA Draft Lottery in Secaucus, N.J., Granik wouldn’t talk about the huge amount of money the league is taking in from global markets, but there is a multitude of other marketing opportunities that is enriching NBA owners, including European cellular phone deals and international television agreements.

“Look at all the international players we are getting,” Granik said. “The business is starting to grow internationally. The future internationally is pretty strong.”

But while business is booming, Commissioner David Stern and his associates are worried about how NBA players are perceived, and that is a major problem facing the league in the future. Stern is concerned, as is Granik, that the image of NBA players as overpaid, big-mouthed, tattooed thugs may prevent the league from luring new fans and spreading its wings overseas.

“We recognize the biggest issue we have had domestically the past few years is the image of NBA players,” Granik said. “We have been working hard on trying to improve that the last couple of years,and I think we are starting have some positive impact there.”

Unsurprisingly, the league took a public relations hit with the brawl in Detroit last year. But that trend was already in motion.Three summers ago, a number of players were arrested on various charges, including poster boy Kobe Bryant for sexual assault. Still, despite the record number of 11 players on the police blotter that year and the subsequent brawl, the NBA is still packing its houses.

“It’s important that fans think well of players, not just on the court but off the court,” said Granik. “We want them to be good citizens of the community.”

It’s a reasonable desire, but unfortunately, being good

citizens of the community seems not to apply to the league’s 30 owners, who continue to threaten to leave their communities and blackmail those cities into building new taxpayer-funded facilities. Local owners in cities like Seattle, Orlando, and in Sacramento are dissatisfied with their arenas, which lack high revenue-producing luxury boxes, club seats, in-arena advertising, restaurants, and wide concourses for fans to buy merchandise. In older arenas, those high-end revenue producers don’t exist, and needier owners want the same amenities that their colleagues enjoy in newer arenas.

Out West, Seattle SuperSonics owner and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is threatening to leave Seattle if the city doesn’t give him a new or renovated arena. Five of the six mayors in Sacramento County are trying to mollify the Maloof Brothers, who want a new arena for their Kings. There has been some talk of a hike in the Sacramento County sales tax as a way to fund a new arena, just 10 years after Sacramento’s city council loaned then-owner Jim Thomas – who had threatened to move the team if he didn’t receive government aid – $70 million to retire the debt on the arena and renovate the building.

In Orlando, Rich DeVos has been seeking a new arena for years. The Magic ownership’s lease to use the cityowned arena is on a year-to-year basis, meaning the DeVos family can legally pull up stakes and ditch Orlando at any time. Last week, out of near desperation, Orlando city officials started to talk about a new tax that would help pay for a new arena, a Citrus Bowl renovation, and a new performing arts center. The NBA likes having a franchise in Central Florida despite Orlando’s small market status. The league, after all, operates a restaurant at Universal Orlando.

But the NBA’s biggest trouble spot is Portland, Ore., where Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen watched his arena company go bankrupt, and Rose Garden creditors are getting the high-end revenue sources that normally go to the team. Allen claims he is losing hundreds of millions of dollars and is threatening to leave the city unless Portland officials bail him out. Of course, fielding a team known more for its bad behavior and last-place finishes than its value to the community hasn’t helped.

The NBA could not find a buyer for the Trail Blazers and the Rose Garden earlier this spring, so it’s back to the drawing board for Allen and his president, Steve Patterson. The Trail Blazers have been trying to win back fan support by getting rid of “troublemakers” like registered sex offender Ruben Patterson, who was suspended by Trail Blazers coach Nate MacMillan for speaking out against his coach and refusing to going into a game. Patterson was traded to Denver last February. Between 1997 and 2003, 14 different Trail Blazers were arrested or cited for 30 different incidents ranging from sexual assault to marijuana possession. Still, the biggest problem the franchise now faces is the Rose Garden bankruptcy.

“The building was turned over to the bond holders,” Patterson said on Tuesday. “We continue to have discussions with the community and the owners of the facility to see if we can find an equation that works for everybody.”

There is no timetable for Allen and Patterson to resolve the Trail Blazers’ situation, and apparently there is no real timetable to resolve the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets situation, either. But in a show of support for the beleaguered city, the NBA this week awarded the 2008 All-Star Game to the city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina last August.

Nevertheless, despite all the political maneuvering and image problems, the NBA is making millions upon millions of dollars as a whole, whether Granik wants to admit it or not. Thanks mostly to TV contracts and newly marketble superstars like Cleveland’s LeBron James, the NBA is in great financial shape. Fans and advertisers have not walked away from the product.

But sports fans are always forgiving as long as their team wins or their favorite player performs well, no matter what happens away from the diamond, gridiron, court or rink. As long as fans think in that mode, Stern and the NBA will rake in the cash both domestically and globally. That’s how it is in the sports world.

The New York Sun

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