Pro sports have always been tied up in financials, but lately it seems like we’re all being knocked unconscious by the Million Dollar Dream, exhausted from money-talk, and eventually passed out in our living rooms while the pro sports monolith crams a wadded up hundred-dollar bill in our collective mouths, Ted DiBiase style. Just one more bit of proof that money moves all and we are but crispy leaves defenseless against its all mighty gusts.
But what the shit am I talking about? Stories about the NBA have become as much about the inner and outer financial dealings of the league as the on-court stories. Yeah, we still prefer to argue about where Kobe Bryant ranks in the league, but we’d just as quickly talk about how much money Kobe’s making at age 36, how that impacts the Lakers, and what Kobe’s true value is to the franchise. The on-court game is inextricably linked with the business side of the game like those fields of humans stretched out as far as the eye can see in The Matrix, the electricity of their brains and hearts propping up an entire robotic existence desperate for survival. We can’t have one without the other, but a sampling of recent NBA stories is fueled by dollar signs to the point that one almost wonders if we’re here for the basketball or the fiscal soap opera in which all is enveloped.
Earlier this week, the league’s intellectual do-gooder commissioner Adam Silver told the world that the league is still exploring potential European expansion. Of course, this is all dependent on whether or not it makes financial sense for the league. As Silver told Bloomberg News: “The NBA would have to weigh the benefits of increasing the size of the 30-team league against possible costs, such as spreading television revenue among more partners.”
Wrapped up in the same piece was a reference to what seems like the inevitability of a person from China owning a team: “I got plenty of calls over the years from wealthy Chinese people who said ’I’d be interested under certain circumstances.’” Further, just days ago, the league snuggled up a little closer to China when it announced a partnership with China’s Ministry of Education to deliver a stated goal to “provide enhanced basketball training to at least three million students by 2017.” Of course, this a win-win for everyone. The league can indoctrinate young Chinese with the best in basketball tutelage while at the same time planting its basketball-consumerist notions in what appears to be bountiful economic soil. Sure as shit, Yao Ming kicked the door off the hinges of NBA globalization and now the league can’t get enough.
This all follows the league’s recent $24-billion, nine-year TV deal with Turner Sports and ESPN which has created a cavalcade of handwringing and Nostradamus-ing about what happens next which is reflective of the sports/NBA finance analysis industry that’s sprung up in recent years, particularly flourishing in basketball since the 2011 lockout. (For further reading, see Larry Coon, the existence of “capology,” Darren Rovell, Forbes’ creation of SportsMoney, etc.) As part of that gigantic TV deal, the NBA will soon cross the threshold into the previously sanctified world of ads-on-jerseys at which time all of our eyes and faces will likely melt and drip down our skulls like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark because we can’t fathom perverting the sanctity of the jersey.
Then there’s 44-minute vs. 48-minute game, the 66-game vs. 82-game season discussions which has gotten all sorts of NBA characters lathered up and offering practical and prideful responses. All-time great and sneaker mogul Michael Jordan predictably challenged the players on the 82-game question saying he would play 82 games regardless – because he’s Michael Jordan of course – but more importantly cut through the nonsense and pointed out what everyone from Beijing to Brooklyn already knows:
But if that’s what they want to do, we as owners and players can evaluate it and talk about it. But we’d make less money as partners. Are they ready to give up money to play fewer games? That’s the question, because you can’t make the same amount of money playing fewer games.
All of the above has happened within the past few weeks. These are radical changes occurring in succession that will likely alter the on-court product that drew so many of us to the game in the first place, so what’s up? Why is this all happening now? The reasons are myriad and far from absolute, but there are a handful of moments that stand out as impossible-to-miss signposts on the NBA’s road paved in gold.
If the 2011 lockout revealed anything to observers, it was that the NBA Players Association was an un-unified clusterfuck. Its then-executive director, Billy Hunter was booted out of the organization soon after and had his activities as director closely reviewed for possible abuses. Hunter even went as far as suing the NBPA and its president, Derek Fisher. Not exactly the most harmonious bunch. The outcome of that 2011 CBA was like seeing early Mike Tyson destroy his overmatched, overpowered, and ineffective opponents. If you’re considering buying an NBA team, the prospect of eventually sitting across the bargaining table from a historically weak union beats the hell out of getting in the ring with an opponent that’s in lockstep agreement on their demands. New NBPA director Michele Williams could change things, but she has plenty of challenges ahead.
A few years ago when the Sacramento Kings were on the selling block, former Seattleite and prospective owner Chris Hansen was willing to throw a-then unheard of $600+ million at the Maloof brothers to buy the franchise and move it up I-5 to Seattle where a privately-funded arena was being conceptualized. Sacramento stepped up to the plate with an ownership group offering significantly less money, but presenting a public-private partnership to finance the arena. When me and you pay for arenas, that’s more money for the NBA and its owners which makes buying a franchise that much more appealing to the handful of billionaires around the world weighing the pros and cons of whether or not to invest in the NBA.
As Sacramento agreed to front some of the dough for a new arena and NBA owners patted themselves on the back for whomping the Players Union in the CBA, long-time Milwaukee Bucks owner and Senator Herb Kohl decided to sell a team that’s had about as much success these past five years as the Seattle Supersonics. When he finally found a couple of New York-based buyers, his Bucks, with the worst record in the league, went for an apparent $550-million – an unheard of amount for a team based in one of the league’s weakest markets with lukewarm future prospects. That Milwaukee went for half-a-billion dollars was revelatory for anyone with a financial stake in the league. That there was already a loosy-goosy public-private partnership on financing a new arena and an option for the league to purchase the team for $575-million if no progress on a new arena has been made by 2017 makes for a low-risk investment. All of a sudden it became clear that the NBA was one hell of a unique and likely profitable place to dump your hundreds of millions.
But the high water mark (to date) happened when billionaire and known honey guzzler Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2-billion this past summer during the Donald Sterling scandal. Earlier in 2014 the franchise had been valued at $575-million by Forbes, but after that sale and over-valuation, Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban chimed in that he thought his team’s $765-million valuation by Forbes was too low, that, “I think we’re worth well over a billion.”
Christ this stuff is muddy, but if the Clippers were sold for more than three times their assumed value and the Bucks went for over 30% of their Forbes valuation, then we’re learning a couple things:
- Prospective NBA owners and Forbes are in disagreement about the real value of NBA teams.
- In the small world of prospective NBA team buyers, there’s a lot of upside to owning a team.
I don’t think this is the piece I set out to write, but rather given the inexhaustible information floating around these interwebs, I tumbled into the rabbit hole of NBA business with dollar signs and arena deals spinning like mini-tornadoes inside my mathematically-challenged mind. What is this business both shaping and being shaped by ten men on a basketball court? How is it that everything that ever brought us to the game is, at the game’s highest level, boiled down to the hardest of the hard core, the mighty dollar? My sentimentality about this entire notion feels like a grave, naïve weakness, but that’s not fair to myself nor do I think it’s true, it’s just something I feel. It’s more complex than that, that players and men and women stumble into this game with genuine intentions and the higher they rise, the more they’re sucked into the conveyor belt of the business of sports. It’s an assembly line that starts out targeting athletes at a young age when they’re still supposedly amateurs. It grabs these kids and their families, they’re used and hustled by runners and college coaches while learning to do the same using and hustling – of course, it’s against the rules for the kids to use the system the way it uses them. And fans are there at the star factory, evolving along with the machine, confusedly feeling their genuine fandoms pulverized by a manipulative force designed to exploit their allegiances for all that sweet money. No matter which view you choose to take, the business is still churning away in an insatiable appetite of greed revealed to us all in the stories and analyses and legalese of contractual language and labor constructs that exist in an alien stratosphere.
This isn’t sour grapes, or lamenting the loss of something, it’s an evolving inevitability. Or as Joe Garcia wrote (H/T to Men in Blazers podcast) after Gibraltar lost 0-7 to the Republic of Ireland, “Let us not feel dejected, let us be realistic.”