As the NBA enters a lockout which threatens players, fans and owners with the possibility of no basketball for the 2011-2012 season, questions about the viability of the league have taken precedence in labor talks between those writing the checks and those cashing them.
Though the NBA is claiming that 22 of 30 teams lost money last season, that number has been widely challenged with mixed results. The weight of the claim, however, lies far from the amount of teams purportedly losing money. Instead, it’s which teams are losing money that is most worrisome.
Small market teams have been suffering the most in recent years. Looking at a helpful graphic from Maury Brown, we can see that in terms of revenue, 10 of the bottom 17 teams in the NBA are from small markets. The well-publicized battle between the city of Sacramento and the Maloof brothers, who own the Kings, has drawn questions to how small-market teams can stay competitive while gaining a profit and maintaining a fan base.
There are several factors in creating a synergetic relationship between these two functions in a sports franchise and there is no doubt that it begins with competition. In an e-mail interview, Jake McCormick of We’re Bucked told me that he believed every small-market team needed a rival: “Rivalries drive ticket sales and hype, especially when the teams involved are good.”
Unfortunately, small-market teams often don’t have the benefit of long-term rivals due to history, success or relocation. Teams like Memphis, New Orleans and Sacramento don’t have lasting rivalries, at least not ones NBA fans outside of those cities can mention. Instead, winning often generates the largest response in terms of fan appreciation and return on capital for ownership. With the exception of Indiana, San Antonio, Portland and Utah, almost no small-market teams enjoy guaranteed commitment from ownership that a team will stick around as part of the city, whether by location or attractiveness.
With rivalries, large-market teams and their fan bases enjoy a commodity that has real cash value. With exceptions between the Lakers and Portland or Indiana and New York, it is the large-market teams that typically see each other as rivals. Over the course of NBA history, there has rarely been a large-market and small-market team that had a consistent, revenue-generating rivalry. Instead, large-market teams carry shared animosity for each other, creating a sense of competitiveness even when talent is lacking. Jared Wade of Eight Points Nine Seconds told me via e-mail that this is a huge help in boosting competition and fan interest: “Major market fans tend to be dismissive of small market franchises that they don’t expect to be challengers while actively loathing the other “haves” of the NBA landscape.”
Several of the writers contacted for this story felt the qualities that make markets like Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles attractive for NBA free agents act as the means to draw fans – and dollars – away from teams, making it even more essential that they field competitive rosters.