NBA’s Hammer Will Fall Hardest On Midwest

Welcome to the 2022 NBA Season. We’re 10 years removed from the lockout that claimed the 2011-2012 season and the landscape sure looks different. It should be an exciting season in the East/Central Division, which of course, is comprised of:

Chicago
Detroit
Miami
Orlando
Washington

What’s that, you say? Where’s Milwaukee, Indiana and Cleveland? Why, they fell victim to contraction. But so did Atlanta and Charlotte. Yet the Eastern Conference wasn’t the only conference affected by the Stalemate of 2011. The West was forever changed too, with the disappearance of Memphis, New Orleans, Minnesota and Sacramento.

Bulls fans will notice a lot of Midwestern teams in that mix for good reason.

For all the talk we hear from Commissioner David Stern about a brand that’s becoming global, the NBA is killing its small markets here at home with silly ping pong ball draft luck and revenue that isn’t spread to small markets that need it most.

Drive through the Heartland and you’ll see nice towns like this all along the way. Minneapolis. Milwaukee. Indianapolis. Cleveland. The big name free agents aren’t coming there and they’re not going to go there. Their stadiums are not in the best condition, yet owners want financing to come from a taxpayer population that’s hurting economically as it is. But if Jay-Z and a Russian billionaire want a stadium built in Brooklyn, it gets done in a couple years.

I don’t always understand the words coming out of ESPN’s Jalen Rose, but he made an astute point recently in saying that, in other leagues such as the NFL and MLB, you are traditionally compensated for bad seasons with the opportunity to draft the very best players coming out of college (or high school). There is no such opportunity in the NBA. If you have the worst record in the league, you have a better chance of drafting the best player, but not guaranteed. When your team is based in New York and it doesn’t work out, that’s not the end of the world. When your team is Indiana, that’s devastating.

Once in a while, the dumb luck works out. You’re San Antonio and your ping pong ball comes up in a year where Tim Duncan is available. You’re Cleveland and you get to draft LeBron James. And what happened even then? Tim Duncan came thisclose to leaving San Antonio for Orlando and well, we all know where LeBron went (sorry, don’t mean to reopen old wounds, Clevelanders).

Here’s the thing – the above scenario happens once in a decade at best. Big market teams have an opportunity to replenish their roster with free agents EVERY YEAR. Therefore, the NBA becomes a league that’s wonderful if you live in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia. If you’re bad this year, you can get better next year or soon enough, regardless of which way the ping pong balls bounce.

Besides drafting changes, there’s the revenue sharing issue that should’ve been discussed so long ago, it’s amazing we’ve waited to do it now. Think about this: According to league sources, 8 teams in the league made $150 million in profit combined. The other 22 teams lost a combined $450 million. The argument I’ve heard here against revenue sharing is that it rewards underperforming teams and punishes overachieving teams. I don’t see it as a reward as much as leveling an unbalanced field. And let’s look at the NBA from a season ticket holder perspective – obviously if you’re a team, you’d like to have long-term commitments from fans than single game sales. But how in the world can you ask economically challenged markets to make this commitment when owners are trying to get those same budget-strapped fans to finance the new home for a perpetually mediocre team or when fans can watch a game from their big screen/laptop/smartphone instead?

For a long time, the poster child of consistent small market success in the NBA was Utah. Each year in a bygone era, Stockton and Malone would keep the Jazz competitive and even get them to the Finals a few times. Later, the heirs apparent to that duo were Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Neither are in Utah and longtime Coach Jerry Sloan finally stepped down. Maybe it was time and he was tired. Or maybe he realized that without big changes, it will be much harder for any small market to be a consistent contender in the NBA.

How do we fix it and keep a more level playing field so the brand of NBA basketball survives in the Midwest? Besides ditching a ping pong ball draft and implementing greater revenue sharing, I think Bill Simmons has some pretty great ideas on how to fix the NBA and he foresaw all this happening last year.

I know some of us who are fortunate enough to live in big cities may not care. But if we care about not only the brand of the NBA going forward but the continued economic viability of major American sports in general, we can’t have leagues where the Haves are defined by the number of skyscrapers and the Have Nots by the number of cornfields.

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