Friday, December 29, 2006

The NBA – an uneventful 2006 I

David Stern continued to deliver solid leadership as the National Basketball Association’s commissioner. In reviewing 2006 the NBA remains a personality driven league. Dwayne Wade led the Miami Heat to their first World Championship. Wade became a marketer’s delight, and was selected as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. The reemergence of Kobe Bryant as a marketing force, the launch of a basketball shoe priced with the consumer in mind and not the almighty dollar were two other important events this year for the NBA.

However despite the good Stephon Marbury managed to accomplish with the launch of an affordable product line, David Stern’s overreaction to an incident at Madison Square Garden and the serious legal problems Indiana Pacers forward Stephen Jackson faced hurt the NBA’s image.

One of the biggest challenges David Stern and the NBA faced was the launch of a new game basketball from Spalding. After the NBA Players Association filed a lawsuit against the NBA in regard to the new basketball, Stern announced effective January 1 the NBA would head back to the future, bringing back the game basketball the league had used for many years.

And while 2006 may have been an uneventful year for the NBA in terms of serious challenges with NBA franchises, a year from now two NBA teams could be in the final stages of relocation, and the future of the Memphis Grizzlies is very much uncertain after the collapse last week of the proposed sale to former Duke basketball players Brian Davis and Christian Laettner. If the challenges David Stern faced in 2006 were limited to serving as a judge, jury and lawyer in dealing with ill-tempered players, 2007 promises to challenge how strong a leader and sports commissioner David Stern is.

Dwayne Wade was the story of the year for the NBA. On Monday, December 4, 2006 , it was announced Wade will be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, becoming the sixth time an NBA player was selected in the 52-year history of the award, joining Bill Russell (1968), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985), Rory Sparrow (1987), Michael Jordan (1991) and Tim Duncan and David Robinson (2003).

Wade has known about the selection for about a month, but said he was ''shocked'' when he heard the news.

''When you think of Sportsman of the Year, you can go into every sport, there's always Tiger [Woods], who every year can win, and then Roger Federer, the other guy who had an unbelievable year,'' said Wade, who averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals in the Heat's six-game Finals triumph. ``I was thrilled. But I kind of know that, to me, it's all dedicated to my teammates and what we did last year with that incredible run to the Finals.''

Heat coach Pat Riley said he couldn't think of anyone more deserving than Wade.

''He deserves it,'' Riley said. ``I can't think of any other singular athlete in any other sport last year who had a better year and a better ending and did something dramatic in his sport. Also he's very good in the community. He's a great choice.''

The Sportsman of the Year issue of SI will be on newsstands Wednesday, and Wade will receive a trophy at a party in his honor Dec. 14 in New York.

''This award has always stood for more than the victory alone. It recognizes the manner of an athlete's striving and the quality of his or her efforts,'' SI Group Editor Terry McDonell said. ''Dwyane embodies that winning spirit by playing for his team, not himself, and by working in the community to ensure young people have the chance to realize their own dreams.''

Wade led the Heat to their first NBA title and enjoyed several key endorsement opportunities. The first overall pick from the 2003 NBA draft, Wade parlayed his NBA Finals MVP award, berths on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, 2004 U.S. Olympic team and 2006 U.S. world championships team into $10 million in endorsement opportunities. Wade was one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 2005. GQ named him the NBA's best-dressed player last season.

“Winning certainly helps,” Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon told the USA Today. “But history has shown that doesn't necessarily correlate to marketability. He brings a charisma and a consumer attraction that marketers covet. Someone has it or doesn't have it. Dwyane seems to have it more so than others.”

Wade was the focus of the NBA’s USA ‘Dream Team’s’ August appearance in China. The Americans stopped in China for a pair of games on their way to the World Basketball Championships in Japan. Wade was featured on 20 million Gatorade bottles distributed throughout China in advance of the tour.

The perception many sports industries insiders have of Dwayne Wade is how many saw Kobe Bryant for many years, before time stood still for Bryant on July 4, 2003. For many NBA fans, particularly those who cheered for Kobe, the end of the innocence began a little more then three years ago when Bryant, then 24, was arrested and charged with Felony Sexual Assault in Eagle Creek, Colorado. (The alleged assault took place on June 30, Bryant was charged five days later).

37 months later on August 21, 2006 the NBA and Sony announced that Kobe Bryant would be on the cover of NBA '07 for PlayStation(R) 2 and PlayStation Portable (R). As strange as it may seem, Kobe Bryant then positioned as the next great NBA player, following in the legacy of Bird, Jordan and Magic, only to experience his own personal version of a Greek Tragedy may indeed be the marketing force most believed he would be, until that fateful day when Kobe was accused of raping a woman.

"I think some people were surprised at the speed of Kobe's comeback. But, the way the way the situation was resolved, I don't think anyone doubted that he'd resume being a marketable personality," Doug Drotman, head of the New York-based sports public relations firm Drotman Communications told the Associated Press.

"What you will see is that Kobe will be marketed a little differently. That's inevitable. Because a change in public perception is something that can't be denied or avoided."

Kobe did the rest, capturing everyone’s attention collecting 81 points in a remarkable one man performance against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006. The tour de force marked the second highest single scoring total in one game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain biblical 100 point game, more myth and legend at times then reality. Kobe’s 81 point masterpiece came in the age of instant communications – overnight Kobe Bryant was back.

"We were all on our e-mails during the second half of the game to make sure it would go up on the Internet quickly," said Brenda Spoonemore, the senior vice president for interactive services at NBA Entertainment. At a moment like Kobe 81, she said: "Our fans have the expectation to see it, own it, watch it. It feels like one of those turning points in the sports industry."

"Kobe Bryant has distinguished himself as one of the truly elite players in the NBA and we are thrilled to have him represent NBA '07 as our newest cover athlete," said Sharon Shapiro, senior director, promotions and sports product marketing, Sony Computer Entertainment America. "With his explosive game and storied rise to the top of the NBA's ranks, Bryant is a great ambassador for NBA '07 and its unique gameplay-driven story mode 'The Life: Vol. 2.'"

Stephon Marbury isn’t a marquee NBA player in the rarefied air Bryant and Wade belong to, but what Marbury contributed to the game in 2006 may the true lasting legacy one NBA player left the sports industry.

He has been named to The Sporting News list of “Good Guys in Sports” three times. He was one of the highest donors to the NBA Player Associations Katrina Relief effort, donating $1 million dollars to the effort. He currently has 7 barbers on hire in Coney Island giving free haircuts to neighborhood children. But it’s his Starbury Ones basketball shoes that represent what one day might become Marbury’s lasting legacy to basketball, to tens of thousands of children and their families – affordable shoes and basketball apparel for the community.

Earlier this month Footwear News, an industry magazine, recognized the impact Marbury’s product launch had on the industry by awarding Marbury its “Launch of the Year”. Footwear News’, who also publishes Women’s Wear Daily, award is thought to be the “Oscars of the shoe industry”. Marbury and his partners retailers Steve & Barry's last week also announced they are donating a free pair of Starbury One high performance basketball sneakers to every varsity high school boys basketball player in New York City. The donation of 3,000 pairs of Starbury Ones is part of a new agreement that makes the Starbury brand a partner of the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). The PSAL directs all athletic competition among the 193 public high schools in the five boroughs.

Marbury launched his product ‘revolution’ on August 17, and followed that with a 21- city tour promoting the shoes and the accompanying clothing line. The product launch and the subsequent tour was timed to send a message to parents from lower income families as they were conducting their back-to-school shopping, you can afford to have your kids look and feel like an NBA basketball player. The shoes retail for $15 a pair. To date more than 3 million Starbury Ones basketball shoes have been sold.

Stephon Marbury said at the time of the release: "Kids shouldn't have to feel the pressure to spend so much to feel good about the way they look. I'm blessed to be in a position to do something about it, to help change the world. I couldn't find a better partner to create the Starbury Collection with than Steve & Barry's. For 20 years, their entire business has been about selling great quality clothes for much less than people expect they should cost."

Steve & Barry's co-CEO Barry Prevor added: “This is a very exciting moment for Steve & Barry's. When Steve and I founded our company in 1985, it was with a mission to bring people the most unbelievable values on clothes they've ever seen. That's exactly what Steph's vision for the Starbury Collection is all about, so this has been a fantastic partnership from the first day we met. Like Steph, we want to revolutionize how people shop, and this new line will help us continue to make that happen.”

Marbury commented, "It was very important to me that the Starbury Collection have a strong social component for kids and parents, especially in urban areas. Steve & Barry's and I decided to conduct the design contest so kids could give real input into how the Starbury line is created and as a means to give back to youth and the community."

Two weeks ago, on December 16 Carmelo Anthony (the third player selected in the 2003 NBA draft) became embroiled in what could be best labeled a ‘skirmish’ in the last minute of the Denver Nuggets 123-100 blow-out of the New York Knicks. The game played at Madison Square Garden led to Stern suspending Anthony the NBA’s leading scorer for 15 games.

Stern tried to rationalize his decision to suspend Anthony for 20 percent of the NBA season: “The NBA and its players represent a game of extraordinary skill, athleticism and grace, and, for good or bad, set an example for the entire basketball world, on and off the court. On the positive side, there is our players’ passion for the game, engagement with our fans, commitment to their communities and respect for the history and tradition of the game. With respect to the negative, while we have worked diligently to eliminate fighting from our game, there are failures such as Saturday night at Madison Square Garden that demonstrate there is still more to be done.”

“It is our obligation to take the strongest possible steps to avoid such failures in the future and to make a statement to all who follow the game of basketball that we understand our obligations and take them seriously. Accordingly, I am issuing the penalties that Tim (Frank) just listed, and will take the occasion to set forth some of the considerations that have influenced my decision here and will continue to guide us as we seek to demonstrate our determination that the NBA and its players be viewed as standing for the best in sports.”

Stern’s overreaction was in large part based on the zero-tolerance Stern instituted following the “Brawl at the Palace” during November 19, 2004 game between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that ended with fans and members of the Pistons fighting each other. One of the Pacers who became involved in the single worst incident involving sports fans and professional athletes was the Pacers Stephen Jackson. On October 11, the Indianapolis Police Department filed a “Probable-cause affidavit” against Jackson relating to an alleged incident that took place between Jackson and patrons at Indianapolis Club Rio, a “gentlemen’s club”.

The Pacers have since traded Ron Artest (the center of “Malice at the Palace”) and Jermaine O'Neal has managed to keep his emphasis on the basketball court. Given Jackson’s terrible choices are coming off-the court there wasn’t very much the NBA or the Pacers could do while the legal system is reviewing what took place at the start of the Pacers training camp. That however, didn’t stop Pacers management from letting Pacers fans know how upset they where with Jackson’s behavior.

Pacers’ President and CEO Donnie Walsh and President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird addressed the media after the charges against Jackson had been filed.

“I'm very disappointed. I think we all spent a lot of time during the summer understanding that we came through two years where we had problems, the Detroit brawl and then the way our team performed last year. We went out and tried to change the team in a very dramatic way, the best way that we could and I think we felt really optimistic that we had a lot of good guys coming in here and the combination of those players and the players we had would change the atmosphere in the locker room.” Walsh told the media.

Larry the Legend is everything to basketball in Indiana. A true Hoosier Legend, when Larry Bird speaks – Indiana basketball fans listen.

"This is a big impact, there's no question about it," Bird told the media Wednesday. "I'm sure season ticket holders are very frustrated with us right now. We have to believe we're going to make the change and do the right thing. We will do it and it's just going to take some time."

Part II of Sports Business News look at the year that was for the National Basketball Association will focus on the ‘back to the future’ decision relating to the ill-conceived decision to introduce a new basketball, and the key franchise decisions Stern and the NBA will face early in 2007.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom.

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