The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
The NBA is in tremendous shape. Ask anyone. Ask Chuck Klosterman. Ask David Stern himself: "People are feeling good about the state of the game and the way it is being played, coached and reffed." Revenues are high. Ratings are improving. These playoffs should be some of the best in history. Sunshine, snow cones, and sarsaparilla. Except ... the model in which NBA teams acquire venues is completely broken, and as such the 15th largest metro area in the United States is losing a team it has loyally hosted for 40 years. Yep. Everything's great, boss.
If you have been a fan of a local team for six minutes or 40 years, Stern does not think you are important. No matter the coin you've dropped in the commissioner's purse or the devotion you've shown, you are not a priority.
Look at Stern's bizarre priorities in Seattle: Stern blames the market and shows less than a thimble's worth of compassion for the fans. He rips Washington State politicians at every turn, chiding them last month for turning down the princely sum of $26 million in exchange for ending ongoing legal battles. Stern lets Sonics owner Clay Bennett make ridiculous statements like "Seattle doesn't even care if we leave." He watches a part-owner flatly state the team was purchased to be moved, then agrees with Bennett that "good faith efforts" to stay were made.
This is Seattle's fault? The chairman of one of the largest corporations in the world (Starbucks's Howard Schultz) gets bored and sells the team to an out-of-towner, the out-of-towner makes one ridiculous pitch for a $600 million Seattle arena and calls it a night ... and this is Seattle's fault?
Sure, the Legislature could have been more receptive to cooperation. Yes, the city could have stepped in sooner. But that's par for the course for every local government in America. Realistically, the second Bennett bought the team, only one other guy could have really influenced the future of this franchise: Stern. He failed to do so, and he's not the least bit sorry about it.
With Stern's unapologetically laissez-faire attitude, we can count on Seattle happening again. Local governments cannot afford to subsidize professional sports leagues; Americans cannot afford mandated expenses for nonessential services. (Like it or not, the NBA falls under nonessential. For most of us, anyway.) A recession is coming ashore, all while a handful of NBA arenas prepare for pasture.
What next, commish? "We are watching various markets on a global scale in a very serious way, more serious than we have ever before.''
London. Madrid. China. Lucrative markets, no doubt ... just as there is little doubt the NBA will subsidize ventures to such markets (through personnel, major events, promotions, perhaps even an arena). This is important to the league and Stern, a strong priority given the revenue possible and the inroads to-date.
But it comes at a cost, and today that cost is Seattle. Is Seattle today not as important as Berlin, in a decade? Further, what about local fans (or homer announcers)?
Stern doesn't care -- he's not concerned with local fans, the guy who will round up his kids a few times a year and treat them to nachos, a pop and upper-level views of a Chris Wilcox putback. He wants fans of the sport, fans of players. This works in capturing an international audience, one whom is not grinding for their local team 82 nights a year.
You don't have to be a homer to see why stars über alles is a dangerous strategy. Ask Michael Jordan, who told this to ESPN: The Magazine last month:
David Stern hates when I say this, but in some ways he created his own problem. Look at the way the league markets its players. ... When you say a player is today's Michael Jordan or today's Magic Johnson, the first thing the public will do is compare him to the real Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. When the public doesn't see the same degree of success, you've just dug yourself a deeper hole.(Emphasis mine.) By focusing on overseas markets and the promotion of individual players to the point where sustaining local fan bases is no longer a priority, Stern has chosen this lot. In New York and in Austin and in France, people care about Kevin Durant. They do not care about Jeff Green or Luke Ridnour or Nick Collison. Who cares about those guys and whether the Sonics win or lose? Seattle does. And when these Sonics leave Seattle, you have lost your base of Nick Collison fans, with no guarantee he will be able to capture a new audience in OKC.
The scene in Seattle will play itself out again and again until the NBA has few loyal local fans left, because nearly all markets will be new. In many cities, people will pack the house only to see LeBron and Kobe ... the teams, home and road, will be irrelevant.
And in Oklahoma City, Bennett (or whoever the next owner is ) has a clear exit strategy if things don't work out: The voters there passed a one-cent sales tax measure last Tuesday to renovate the 10-year-old Ford Center, the prospective home of the OKC Sonics. In roughly 15 years, you can bet Bennett will be standing before the taxpayers squawking about the need for a new arena, or upgrades to the Ford. And he'll have his paw out, asking for another penny on every dollar spent in OKC.
And if the voters don't give it to him? Maybe a businessman from Cheyenne (or Shanghai) comes along and buys the team, promising to make "good faith efforts" to find a solution to save OKC's Sonics. We know what those are worth to Stern.
The NBA, it's
There are some possible defenses. In small markets (like OKC, like Sacramento) the league needs to find some creative ways to finance these buildings without sticking their hand out to taxpayers. Bonds, development deals, hotel taxes -- use an a la carte menu of options to get things done.
In major cities with a huge corporate presence and a rich demographic with expendable income to burn (like, say ... Seattle?), the team owners should have little problem building their own arena. Even awful franchises like the Baltimore Orioles mint money in terms of valuation (proving "that you can wreck a fanbase yet make the franchise more valuable somehow."). Hell, the Knicks became more valuable this year. Even if you're spilling red ink, your investment is nearly always paying off in the end. Just consider an arena a cost of doing business with NBA.
Right now? An arena is a cost of doing business for the fans ... who already pay to support the league as a whole. How is this fair? Meanwhile, in 10 years the Sonics will be worth $50 million more than what he paid for the franchise. Is that largess going back to the community whose tax dollars allowed him to do business?
Not unless we have a new commissioner in 2018.
Mapping the NBA gives Excel spreadsheets some balls.
How ridiculous is Stern's stance? Well ... nothing like this has ever happened in the NBA. Ever.
The Warriors left Philadelphia after 16 seasons. (Philly, of course, got the Syracuse Nationals -- which became the Sixers -- the very next season.) Rochester lost the Royals after 15 seasons; Charlotte, like Syracuse, had its teams 14 years before relocation.
Seattle has had the Sonics for 41 years. This is ridiculous. Absolutely, positively, decidedly ridiculous.