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Will the NBA become a ‘Fly Over’ League?


The NBA Championship Finals series is one of the National Basketball Association’s crown jewel events; but behind the glitz and glamour of the competition is a real question that no one wants to discuss. Is the NBA in danger of becoming what Louisville lawyer and player agent Bruce Miller calls a “fly over league”?  This is a term that begs to be defined.

This seems to be the best definition. The NBA may become a league of just major cities.  There may soon three teams in the New York City area – Manhattan’s Knicks, Brooklyn’s Nets and a small market team moving to Newark. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has already told NBA Commissioner David Stern that Newark is open for NBA business as soon as the Nets franchise moves over to Brooklyn. New Jersey Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek wants an NBA team in his Newark building.

The Sacramento Kings owners, the Maloof brothers, have toyed with the idea of moving their franchise to Anaheim to give Los Angeles three teams, the Lakers and Clippers along with the proposed Anaheim Royals. Sacramento officials are scrambling to find hundreds of millions of dollars to build the Maloofs a new arena despite proposed layoffs of municipal workers along with the shut downs of public parks and scaling back of educational opportunities from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Anaheim doesn’t have an NBA team because city officials gave the lion’s share of the Anaheim arena revenues to the Walt Disney Company when Disney signed a deal to put a National Hockey League expansion team in the building. There weren’t enough revenues left over for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to move his team from the Los Angeles Sports Arena to Anaheim. That is why Anaheim lost an NBA team.

San Jose, California is now looking for a team.  This would put two teams in the San Francisco Bay area.

Newark officials want to replace the Nets.  The NBA owns the New Orleans Hornets franchise; Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl is not running for re-election and owns the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise looking for a new facility. The Indiana Pacers franchise is heavily subsidized by local taxpayers in Indianapolis and surrounding areas. The very successful (on-court) Oklahoma City Thunder franchise is also very heavily subsidized by Oklahoma City taxpayers.

That franchise was in Seattle until a few years ago when local elected officials decided not to build a new arena for the team. The then SuperSonics owners squeezed every last nickel they could out of Oklahoma City and state politicians.

National Basketball Association owners and players do not have a collective bargaining agreement after June 30th. The National Basketball Players Association has already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that NBA owners are not negotiating in good faith.  NBA owners want to roll back salaries and there is a claim that as many as 22 of the 30 franchises are losing copious amounts of money.

Miller is charge of an effort to bring the NBA to Louisville. The Kentucky market is small yet it is basketball crazy. The state has two “professional” basketball franchises already – the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville – but the city has not had a “big league” team since the American Basketball Association folded in 1976 and the Louisville Colonels owner John Y. Brown took some NBA cash and left the world of basketball.  He then returned to pro basketball later in 1976 when he purchased a piece of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves.

Louisville started seeking an NBA franchise about 10 years ago but struck out in efforts to land George Shinn’s Charlotte Hornets, Michael Heisley’s Vancouver Grizzlies and Leslie Alexander’s Houston Rockets. Shinn moved his team to New Orleans (which is a financial disaster), Heisley went to Memphis (another financially troubled franchise) and Alexander stayed in Houston.

Could Louisville work? Under the right set of circumstances, yes. But it has to start with NBA owners increasing revenue sharing between the large market Knicks and Lakers and the New Orleans, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Indianapolis and other small-market franchises.

Will the Knicks’ Jim Dolan and the Lakers’ Jim Buss (the Lakers scored a huge deal with Time Warner Cable to form a Lakers regional cable station in English and in Spanish starting in 2012) agree to share revenues?  One of the major coups of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s career was getting New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to give up some of his dollars in a revenue sharing scheme. Can David Stern, who really has never been very successful in twisting the arms of Buss and Dolan, persuade them to give up some of their dollars to help the smaller markets?

The NBA plans to manufacture what 2008 Republican Presidential candidate John McCain denounced. He claimed Barack Obama wanted to redistribute the wealth of the country. NBA owners want a shift in wealth the in the business.

McCain, of course, was using a new campaign slogan but Stern and small market owners have been after a shift in wealth for four years now. Mainly the owners want to stop paying the players enormous salaries over a number of years of guaranteed contracts.  A lot of players are not as productive as owners and general managers projected and a lot of contracts are bad investments on the court.

The National Basketball Players Association should not be in the business of protecting owners from a bad investment. The NBPA already gave the NBA owners a huge concession in the last go around for a CBA by agreeing to bar players just out of high school and high school graduates from applying for a job as a player in the league.

NBA Commissioner David Stern came up with flimsy excuses which included that he didn’t want to see NBA scouts at high school games. Does anyone believe that this cleaned up the high school game?

The real reason Stern and his owners didn’t want 18-year-old out of high school players was simple. Why pay for research and development when you have a college willing to do just that? By getting a 19-year-old instead of an 18-year old, you have a more finished product and more importantly, a contract renewal comes at 22 or 23 years of age not 21 when a player still has a perceived upside.

Jermaine O’Neal was a total bust with Portland after getting millions from ownership as the 17th player picked in the 1996 draft. He cost Paul Allen a lot of money and did nothing for Allen’s Trail Blazers franchise. Allen though stuck with him and at 21 offered O’Neal a huge contract. O’Neal’s second contract was big but his playing time wasn’t and he languished costing Allen millions.

Portland traded him to Indiana where he flourished. Had O’Neal been in college, Allen would have invested his money in another player. Allen, under today’s CBA, would have been protected against a bad investment because O’Neal would not have come into the league at 18 and qualify for a new contract at 21. Players second contracts come at 22 or 23.

If the NBA owners don’t get rollbacks, Miller’s job of trying to get an NBA team in Louisville will be difficult. The league has not given up on New Orleans yet and is looking for a person who has an interest in keeping the team in New Orleans. The Sacramento arena deal has not been fully explained but the league is committed to remain there through spring 2012. Of course if the owners lock out the players and there is a long work stoppage, it doesn’t matter what will happen in New Orleans and Sacramento in 2011-12.

The new CBA may very well determine whether the NBA becomes a fly over league or not. Charlotte, Memphis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Sacramento, Portland, Orlando, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Denver may become fly over cities in the NBA owners minds if they don’t get what they want in the new collective bargaining agreement. The players all simply want the status quo to remain in place.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.


  1. If the NBA owners don’t get rollbacks, Miller’s job of trying to get an NBA team in Louisville will be difficult.

  2. If the NBA owners don’t get rollbacks, Miller’s job of trying to get an NBA team in Louisville will be difficult.


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