NBA Small-Market Teams Are An Endangered Species

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.

When contrasting two teams in Toronto and Miami, NBA fans are quick to point out that in a pre-LeBron era, Miami fans were not so outspoken about their franchise. Fans in Miami enjoy alternative entertainment options, the same drawing NBA players to their city, and carry less weight among the NBA community. Emile Avanessian of Hardwood Hype gave the counter-argument to that sentiment in an e-mail to Dime:

“Every fan’s kneejerk reaction would be to say that Toronto is a far friendlier market for the NBA than is Miami. Looking at last year when the Heat were not such a hot ticket, Miami and Toronto were 15th and 14th respectively in attendance. Fans in Miami compare favorably to their counterparts in Toronto, who are viewed with a great deal more respect.”

Large-market teams, when they field uncompetitive squads, are still able to avoid relocation or contraction talk. If the bridge between their rival goes unused, it is at least maintained. In the 14 seasons from 1993 to 2007, the Boston Celtics only finished with a record above .500 three times. During that same span, the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a record above .500 a dozen times, winning 17 out of 27 regular-season games between the two classic rivals.

For 14 years, the rivalry was anything but. When the Lakers and Celtics met in the NBA Finals twice out of the three seasons between 2007 and 2010 the rivalry was renewed, not just for fans but for ownership in the form of ticket sales, concessions and merchandise. Meanwhile, the same cannot be said for Indiana/New York, Sacramento/Lakers or Utah/Chicago. As small-market teams lose their competitive edge, so too do they lose the revenue generated by remaining among the large-market teams.

“Things can go drastically wrong in New York but a low attendance or general fan malaise for a few years isn’t going to prompt relocation talk. In Indiana, Memphis or Sacramento, it will,” wrote Jared Wade.

Perhaps most interesting is the lack of rivalries and competition between small-market teams. While large-market teams usually see each other as rivals, there seems to be some kind of cohesion between the Portlands and Milwaukees of the NBA world. Rather than outright hatred or relative indifference, fans of small market NBA teams feel a connection to each other on a level that doesn’t move forward in creating outright competition.

“It’s more so an acknowledgement that those teams are in the same boat as us, as far as the struggle to perform and be seen go, especially in the face of the more popular franchises,” wrote Pounding the Rock‘s Justin Biehle via e-mail.

Management of these small-market teams has been hit-and-miss. For each move made by R.C. Buford in San Antonio or Chris Wallace in Memphis, there are seemingly endless ill-advised moves made by Charlotte, Indiana, Portland, Toronto, Milwaukee and New Orleans. Some of these teams are working on creating competitive teams while others seem to struggle with that concept each season.

That those teams are unable to create real rivalries between them says something about them as individual entities and about their attitudes toward each other. Of the major NBA rivalries, the only active small market listing is San Antonio/Phoenix. With aging franchise players and coming rebuilding efforts for both teams, there has to be serious doubt as to whether or not that competition can continue.

With exception to the rabid fan bases in Utah and Portland, small-market fans are neither to blame nor can they be expected to cultivate an atmosphere of competitiveness and rivalry by themselves. As all soldiers on the ground need orders from above, so too must NBA owners and management create an environment of competition and unity in the direction for their teams. For some markets, the clock is ticking. Whether by relocation or contraction, the failures of small-market basketball cannot be smoothed over in a post-lockout NBA. It’s not what’s best for the league, the fans or the owners.

With the NBA lockout looming and fans taking sides over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it should be said that most of us feel the NBA owners need saving from themselves. Frivolous contracts being the thorn in their side, among other things, they will have to tread lightly in avoiding the faults of the other major U.S. sports. Revenue sharing is almost certainly coming in the next CBA, touted as the savior for all the small-market money woes. The NBA will have to be careful, however, creating a system in which revenue sharing does not take away from the competitive spirit the way it does in the MLB, with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates fielding awful teams each year and turning a profit while doing so.

In sports, and especially in the NBA, the thing that cures all ails is winning. Simply, it is the thing that generates the most short and long-term health for a franchise. The cultivation of a die-hard fan base is the lifeblood for small-market NBA teams today. Winning ensures that a fan base sticks around in Utah to buy tickets when Malone and Stockton leave. Winning drives people to the Rose Garden after Pippen and Wallace leave and convicted, dog-fighting felons start suiting up for the Blazers. It’s also the one thing that will keep people coming back to AT&T Center Parkway in San Antonio when Tim Duncan retires.

Biehle perhaps summed up the importance of winning best when he remarked on the longetivity of the San Antonio Spurs: “Had the Spurs historically performed like, for example, the L.A. Clippers have, I don’t think I could say with any real assertion that the team wouldn’t have left in search of greener pastures.”

For now, the Spurs aren’t going anywhere. Neither are the Blazers, or the Jazz or the Suns.

For now.

What do you think? What are the biggest problems with small-market teams?

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