The NBA Corner: The Business of Sport
In late 2008, the rapper Skillz rhymed, “The whole world’s in debt, how you gonna bail that out?” While that’s not entirely true – Apple ($AAPL) continues its march to world domination – it certainly applies to the state and federal governments of the United States of America. Cities are crumbling, states are broke, and the federal budget will reach $1.3 trillion this year. None of that stops owners of sports teams from holding a city hostage and demanding community money for a new stadium.
Asking taxpayers to pay (or even contribute) to a stadium that they will only be allowed to enter upon paying for high priced tickets is like having to pay a toll and walk through a turnstile just to enter your home every night. The fact that this has become business as usual is more impressive than anything that investment bankers on Wall Street managed to do.
For the use of public funds to be approved (and tolerated), the money is expected to be pumped back into the community in some way. Much like casino developers, professional sports team owners claim that new stadiums not only keep teams in the same city, but also create jobs and make money for the public. This exact conversation took place recently when the Sacramento City Council voted to pledge $255.5 million towards a brand new $391 million arena for the Sacramento Kings, who currently play inside Arco Arena, meaning that tax payers would be picking up 65% of the tab for a private arena. The only argument for public funds to be used to fund private business is if the business brings economic growth and prosperity to the area. Is that true? Do sports franchises and arenas pump monetary life into depressed areas?
Recently, a terrific blog post on Freakonomics.com tackled the question. I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but the short answer is no: “The empirical evidence suggests quite strongly that sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth. And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive. In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports.” The post goes on to espouse the idea that since the Kings bring joy and happiness to Sacramento residents, Mayor Kevin Johnson (yeah, this guy) fought to keep them from leaving for another city so as not to be blamed for losing the city’s only professional sports franchise. Once again, politics and money dominate all.
Fear not, Sacramentans. Although your city may be spiraling towards insolvency and the bank may foreclose on your home, but at least all of you will have a shiny new arena to live in together for years to come.
Until it becomes obsolete.
On Tuesday, the Memphis Grizzlies signed Gilbert Arenas to a pro-rated, one-year contract. Why? The Grizz are currently 25 – 18, sitting at second-place in the Southwest division, and have a strong core of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph, along with O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley. Why would they threaten the team’s chemistry by bringing in Arenas? This is reminiscent of the Allen Iverson signing. How’d that work out? I don’t even know if Arenas can still play. He hasn’t played more than 50 games since the 2006 – ’07 season. Moreover, he’s a career 42% field goal shooter that is a shoot-first point guard. The best case scenario for Memphis is that he turns into an instant offense threat like Vinny Johnson for the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons, but that requires far more optimism than I can stand. Personally, I don’t see it working. However, with my luck, don’t be surprised if he wins Most Improved Player and wins a ring.
Last week, I took a quick look at the Derek Fisher salary dump by the Lakers. We’re now starting to see the fallout. First, Fisher has been discussing options with suitors like a mini-Peyton Manning and is reportedly finalizing a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. What about the Lakers? Ramon Sessions is just the athletic PG that they needed to keep up with the other quick guards in the West, but I truly wonder how Kobe Bryant will cope. Fisher was his main man and the team dropped him so they wouldn’t have to cut him a check. That can't sit well. We all know Kobe only wants to win, but he really is human. The other night, he shot a putrid 3-for-20 and had 7 turnovers in a in a rare home loss. Was that just a poor shooting night for Bryant? Most likely. However, I wonder how he’ll go forward without having Fisher in the locker room to keep him level.
Mid-to-late March is obviously dominated by college basketball. As I was watching games and cursing my bracket, I began thinking about all of the players that have won both an NCAA and NBA championship. As I was brainstorming, I realized how the long the list was becoming, so I further narrowed down the parameters to what players won both in consecutive seasons. Unless I’m wrong, I believe there have only been four:
- Bill Russell – San Francisco Dons (1956) & Boston Celtics (1957)
- Henry Bibby – UCLA Bruins (1972) & New York Knicks (1973)
- Earvin “Magic” Johnson – Michigan State Spartans (1979) & Los Angeles Lakers (1980)
- Billy Thompson – Louisville Cardinals (1986) & Los Angeles Lakers (1987)
It’s interesting that three of the four occurred within fifteen years of each other, but it has not happened in twenty-five years, even as the tournament field has expanded. With the rash of one-and-done players, it’s hard to fathom that it will happen again soon because most elite NCAA teams are loaded with freshmen that leave and are drafted early by bad teams that aren’t even close to winning in the NBA. Additionally, with the influx of international talent in the draft every year, colleges are sending players much fewer players to the next level. Twenty years ago, an average senior on a title team may have gotten a shot in the back of the second round, but the competition is so much greater now that only a few colleges send more than one player to the Association every year.
We all knew the lockout-shortened season would be a grind, particularly for older teams, but it’s hard to comprehend what really goes into playing three games in three nights. Fortunately, SI.com reporter Lee Jenkins embedded himself with the Dallas Mavericks for a recent back-to-back-to-back stretch in Phoenix, Sacramento, and Golden State. It was quite revealing to see how a team handles such a challenge. The fact that Rick Carlisle had been planning to rest Jason Kidd for the middle game since December gives a bit of insight into how maniacal good pro coaches are and how most fans probably don’t realize what Dirk Nowitzki went through to try to control the swelling on a thigh bruise he suffered in a collision with Grant Hill: “Nowitzki set a series of alarms so he would wake up every two hours, ice the thigh for 20 minutes and then fall back to sleep.” It’s like his thigh was a newborn baby. The Mavs lost all three games, but trying to use such an unusual sample size to predict playoff success would be fruitless. No one was rested: “Nowitzki felt soreness in his thigh, [Jason] Terry in his hamstrings, small forward Shawn Marion in his knees. Their bodies said they were due a day off, but their itinerary said they had one more game.” The quality of play is down this season due to this ridiculous schedule, but I don’t think it’s at all indicative of what we’ll see in the postseason…you know, since teams will actually have days to rest between games.
Even before Mike D’Antoni left the New York Knicks, rumors swirled that Phil Jackson would return to the team for which he played (and won two rings), bring the franchise championship glory, and ride off into the sunset. That’s the dream that all Knicks fans (and probably ESPN executives) cling to right now.
To this point, Jackson has given no hint that he is at all interested in returning to coach in the NBA regardless of the city or the money. One day I read that he’s very interested in the job, the next day I read he wants no parts of it. Personally, I don’t see him coming back. While you could make the two superstar argument, 2012 Carmelo Anthony & Amar’e Stoudemire are not exactly 1989 Michael Jordan & Scottie Pippen or 1999 Shaquille O’Neal & Kobe Bryant. Even if he were interested in coaching the team (which I don’t think he is), it’s hard to imagine that he would work for an owner like James Dolan, regardless of how much he would be paid. Dolan overrules his basketball people on roster decisions – like the decision to bring in Carmelo Anthony – and Jackson, who bristles at anyone questioning him, would not do well with that. Furthermore, Dolan has reportedly issued a decree that no coach can criticize players in the NYC media. Are you kidding me? 75% of Jackson’s communication with his players is through the media. I just don’t see it. Jackson has reportedly turned down the Knicks twice in the past decade, so what’s so different now? I’m sure he paid close attention to Larry Brown’s tenure in Madison Square Garden and decided that sometimes you can’t go home again.
Finally, huge props to Chris Mullin finally getting his number retired by the Golden State Warriors. I’ve always felt Mullin was a bit underrated throughout his career.
I realize that is a bold statement to make regarding someone that was a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last April, but playing his career in Golden State and Indiana kept him relatively under the radar, even after an illustrious college career at St. John’s. As one-third of the vaunted Run-TMC, alongside Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway, he scored more than 25 points per game five seasons in a row (1988 – ’89 - 1992 – ’93) and his career PER of 18.78 is 99th in NBA history. Of course, just like his playing career, Mullin’s jersey retirement was a bit overshadowed. Warriors fans booed owner Joe Lacob during the ceremony to show their displeasure, which is completely understandable. If that happened in Philly, it would have led SportsCenter and ESPN would have pressured Congress to launch an investigation. The unfortunate incident, which was in response to Lacob trading fan favorite Monta Ellis, did have a silver lining, once again showcasing the class of the former Warriors superstar and executive:
Congrats, Chris Mullin! You're a class act and your accolades are well-deserved.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.