March 02, 2009

Franchises on the move - NBA in KC?? Columbus?

Finally had a chance to read that epic column from Bill Simmons on the state of the NBA. Simmons doesn't bang out as much good stuff these days, but you still have to read him just in case he blows you away with a column like he put out there on Friday. That thing was the most insightful and thought-provoking sports column I've read in years. I came away from that column more educated about the NBA, and that's really what I'm looking for when I read a sports column.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree with his take on economics in the NBA and all of sports, and I definitely think we are headed for a crazy time of lockouts, franchise relocations, and maybe even contraction. I've never understood how the NHL and NBA models were sustainable for this long anyway, so it doesn't surprise me that half the teams in each league are on the brink of collapse. Who is paying those ticket prices on a nightly basis?? NBA and NHL games are pricey, and there are only so many corporate people who can buy up those overpriced seats in mid-sized cities like Memphis and Nashville and Milwaukee and Charlotte and Columbus and Sacramento. Throw in a bad economy and a bad team and maybe even a sport that makes no sense in that town (ie. hockey in Atlanta), and you have a recipe for disaster. Simmons mentions that several teams are going to be on the move in the next couple years, and even throws out Kansas City and Columbus as possible suitors.

As far as the NHL goes, I can't believe it has taken this long for the league to hit the wall. Are people in these southern cities really going to hockey games?? Can anyone in Atlanta name one player on the Thrashers other than that Ilya Kowalchuk guy (and there are probably many Atlantans who can't name him either)?? It seems like every southern team in the league is having major financial problems, which doesn't surprise me at all. What is the connection between a city like Miami and hockey?? Who plays hockey in Miami?? Who even follows hockey in Miami?? I can't even picture a typical Miami resident at a hockey game. Do they rock the random Hartford Whalers jerseys like the other hockey fans around the country like to do?? I just can't picture going to a Florida Panthers game in the middle of February when it's 80 degrees outside. It was inevitable that those franchises would be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Columbus isn't the hockey mecca or anything, but at least hockey makes sense in a place like Columbus. Columbus is freaking cold. You wear a fleece and a hat and gloves for like 8 months out of the year and there is snow on the ground for most of the hockey season (including right now..ugh). There is just as much ice outside the arena as in it. What else is there to do in the winter in a place like Columbus besides go to indoor sporting events?? The only drawback for hockey in Columbus has been the dreadful product on the ice, but that appears to be changing. Hockey has really exploded from the junior level all the way up to adult leagues in the area since the Blue Jackets came to town. It is still a work in progress, but I think it is a sustainable hockey market with potential to be a great hockey market.

I think the NHL is headed for contraction. I don't see how it wouldn't happen. Get rid of the Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, and Phoenix Coyotes, and maybe even see if another franchise or two wants to move back to Canada. Then you would be at a somewhat manageable 24 franchises or something like that. I think the league would be positioned to ride out the storm with those numbers.

As for the NBA, I think Simmons lays out clearly what the problem is with the NBA. When your franchises are paying out those huge guaranteed contracts for mediocre players and the fans stop attending games because the team stinks and the economy is in the tank, you have a recipe for disaster. In a city like Indianapolis where you have a wildly successful NFL franchise and the Indiana Hoosiers right up the road, maybe those tickets to see a lousy Pacers team aren't a priority all of the sudden. In a lot of these cities down south or out west where the economy is in shambles, you aren't going to sell a lot of luxury boxes and $50 tickets for NBA games. These teams are screwed if attendance starts to drop off. All of that makes a ton of sense, and I think Simmons is right on point with his analysis.

I do disagree with Simmons on one large point though. Simmons has always been a guy who represented the voice of the average sports fan, and he has always used his platform to come to the defense of any city on the verge of losing a franchise and to lash out at owners who want to move to other cities. He has been railing on the OK City owners all year, and he has come to the defense of a number of cities that get caught up in these franchise relocations.

While I can understand where he is coming from, I can't say that I have a ton of sympathy for these cities. At the end of the day, if you aren't doing everything humanly possible to keep your franchise, you can't really play the blame game when they leave. Let me preface that by saying that I would be DEVASTATED if the Reds or Bengals ever left Cincinnati. My interest in either MLB or the NFL would drop off a cliff if either of those teams left. The only reason that Cincinnati has any national relevancy is because of those two sports franchises. If it wasn't for the Reds and Bengals, Cincinnati would be Louisville. An anonymous mid-sized Midwestern city that is a nice place to live but no one knows about and no one cares about. Maybe that's a dumb thing to say, but it's the truth. Major league sports probably aren't worth the investment, but they do a lot for civic pride and give good publicity for your city. If the Bengals or Reds ever left, they would never get another team back. It's not a big enough market for expansion in MLB or the NFL. That would be it.

But the reason that I'm not particularly worried about either team leaving for at least the next thirty years is because we built both of them two brand spanking new stadiums on the taxpayer's dollar. The city passed a sales tax in 1995 to build the stadiums. They got it done. No "private financing," no protests, no screwy leases to jam up the franchises. It was a one shot deal, and it passed overwhelmingly. Keep in mind that the Bengals and Reds have played in a COMBINED ONE PLAYOFF GAME since that levy was passed almost 14 years ago. Maybe it was a poor economic decision for the city and maybe it wasn't worth it to build a $500 million football stadium on prime riverfront property for a terrible NFL franchise that screws its fans year after year, but it "saved" the Bengals and Reds and locked them into Cincy for a long long time. It was a decision that was made by the people, and it is one that I think people are still ok with to this day and probably would vote for again.

That brings me to Seattle and some of these other cities that may be in jeopardy of losing their teams. I guess I just can't muster up that much sympathy for Seattle. They prioritized new stadiums for the Seahawks and Mariners and left the Sonics in the cold by not building a new arena for them. There is nothing wrong with that decision, and it might have even been the right decision for the city to focus on their two marquee franchises. The Sonics weren't a priority for the city, so they decided to take their services elsewhere. In the world of professional sports, if you don't shell out to keep your team, you open the door for them to leave. Period. There are plenty of other cities out there that would love to take your team off your hands. Places like Louisville that have been begging for an NBA franchise. Places in Canada that would love to lure in an NHL franchise. You also have a place like Kansas City that built a brand new arena for the purpose of bringing in an NBA or NHL franchise. There is a ton of competition for these franchises. Seattle went from a 3 sport town to a 2 sport town by its own choice. There is nothing out there that says they need to have three professional sports teams from now until eternity. Some cities are just better off as two team cities.

And for all the hand-wringing from Simmons about Oklahoma City, can anyone dispute that it was a great move for that franchise?? They are now playing in front of packed houses every night in a town that was starving for pro sports. What else is going on in Oklahoma City? Tractor pulls and rodeos?? There aren't any other pro or college teams there. Why was it the owner's fault that he wanted to move an NBA franchise to his hometown?? He thought they would do real well there, and it seems like he was right. Oklahoma City is a capital city and probably has a good percentage of white collar employees with disposable income. That is a formula for being a pretty good NBA town. The Sonics were 3rd in the pecking order in Seattle (4th if you count University of Washington sports). In Oklahoma City, they are #1.

Seattle had an opportunity to build a new stadium for the Sonics, and the voters turned it down. That's how it goes. If Seattle ever wanted to get an NBA or NHL team, they could easily build a new arena and lure a team back. Seattle is a pretty good NBA market, and I think it has the potential to be a good NHL market as well. It has the right demographics for the NHL: Tons of white people, cool weather, and lots of people with the money to afford tickets. Plus, there's enough of a frontier feel out there that it would fit in well with the NHL type of environment.

I don't know, I guess that's where I differ from Simmons. He has an entitlement attitude toward sports teams and thinks that they belong to cities and that commissioners should protect them. Having gone through the drama of Cincy teams wanting new stadiums, I find myself on the other side of the issue. If you want to keep your team, you better be willing to give them what they want. And if you don't, they just might leave. I also don't have a lot of sympathy for the "well, we would have supported the team if the product was good" card when other cities are plunking down hundreds of millions of dollars to keep their franchises around.

If Columbus or Cincinnati was ever in a position to get an NBA team, I would be thrilled and wouldn't feel the slightest bit guilty about taking a team from someone else. Columbus has one of the nicest arenas in the country and pretty good demographics. If things don't work out long term with the Jackets, I could see them making a play for an NBA team. I don't think the NBA is a good fit in Columbus though. If they can't even sell out Ohio State basketball games, how are they going to sell out 41 home NBA games?? It's not a basketball town. I hope the Jackets continue to build a local fanbase that can weather the ups and downs of rebuilding years and the economy.

I don't think an NBA team would work out long term in Cincy either (they lost the Cincinnati Royals back in the 70s to Kansas City), but I think they could get themselves into the picture if they built a new downtown arena. Whether or not that is a good move would be a different story. You already have two popular college hoops programs in town and UK across the river, so it would be a tough market. And if it didn't work out in Cincy, I certainly wouldn't pitch a fit if the team left. That's how it goes. I've come to terms with the fact that Cincy is a two team type of town.

As for Kansas City, it seems like they couldn't possibly be in a better position to strike and get a team. Building that arena was a smart move, and they might be able to have their pick of an NHL or an NBA team. Good for them.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

The Blue Jackets are going to be fine. They need to continue to play well enough for the rest of this year to remain in the playoff hunt to very end, and then make a playoff run in 2009-2010. The young talent is there and ownership is apparently willing to open the checkbook to make the team better.

The fans came out in droves the first few years and are desperately looking for a competitive team. Now that the Jackets are showing life again, Nationwide Arena is full again, especially on the weekends. Can you imagine what that place would be like in a playoff game? Gives me freaking chills just thinking about it.

If they can continue to field a good squad that consistently makes the playoffs, the NHL will be thrilled that they gave Columbus a franchise. And the pieces are there - all of the best players on the team are home grown youngsters who are only going to get better. I suppose that's what happens when you pick in the lottery every single year of your existence.