Friday, April 13, 2007

All is well with the NBA and its captain David Stern

The National Basketball Association regular season ends on Wednesday, the playoffs start a week from Saturday; NBA commissioner David Stern as he does several times throughout the regular season held a “State of the NBA” news conference this week, somewhat lost in the furor surrounding Don Imus’ comments directed at the Rutgers Women’s basketball team and justice served in the Duke lacrosse case. Given how the media tends to gravitate towards controversial issues, its good news when a sports league holds a news conference and no one really notices. That doesn’t suggest what David Stern had to say wasn’t important, just that being under the radar usually means the business of the NBA is pretty good as the regular season comes to an end.

“We are excited going into the Playoffs. It’s been a terrific season for us with overseas training camps to international competition of NBA Europe Live and even as we come down to the end of the season with teams jockeying for both playoff position or making it into the playoffs. We have our third consecutive season where we set attendance records; we are proud about that and the game we think continues to look good reflecting the enforcement, emphasis and rules changes that we have had over the past several years. On a basketball matter it is just fun to see the Toronto and Utah and Chicago teams that have been playing well of late -- all of them enhanced and enriched by international contributions as well and we are also very happy with our changes to the entry age and the utilization of the Development League.

“This year the Development League will have had 14 players who were not on rosters who were brought up to the NBA and that means we have got those players to stay in the United States where you can play NBA-caliber basketball and we have a had a very large number of players who were assigned by our teams, we have had 24 players that have been assigned by teams and that tells us that our teams are getting comfortable using the Development League for its purpose to develop players to give them confidence, conditioning and playing time and to improve their basketball skills. That’s important because that goes to the game and so as we look forward to the Draft, we are looking forward to our regular infusion of great young players, a bit older in a context where they get the opportunity to both play if they can do it at the NBA level or develop with the development league.

“It would not be fair of me not to mention that we are getting ready to-tip off the WNBA’s 11th season on May 19, and also to say that there are an extraordinary number of games on ABC and ESPN, some 37. We continue with our NBA Cares initiatives from Basketball without Borders in Africa, Asia, Europe to the Katrina relief efforts continuing to the housing that our players built, making our social responsibility part of the game. We are very, very excited about looking forward to what promises to be our great Playoffs where our players are gong to be engaging in activities on the court and showing skills that if you are not a fan you are going to find to be unbelievable, if you are a fan you are going to know our guys do it day-in and day-out. So thank you very much for your interest and we are happy to open up to questions.” Stern remarked

When the NBA playoffs do start next weekend you won’t need a roadmap to find the league’s games on cable and network television (good luck trying to find the NHL playoffs). The NBA has their own network available in both the United States and Canada, strong partnerships with Turner (TNT) and ESPN and offers a number of playoff games on ABC, before the NBA Finals moved to network TV on ABC. For those who follow how sports leagues conduct their television partnerships the NBA serves as a model as to how to get the job done properly.

“It is not surprising; two things aren’t surprising to us although public reaction has changed since we first did it. First of all, the move of important programming to cable with its joint revenue stream and its ability to show more games in primetime was inevitable, and since we made the Disney and Time Warner deals years ago we’ve seen a move by baseball with respect to its expanded programming on ESPN as well as the League Championship Series and the Divisional Playoffs moving to Turner properties (TBS). And, actually, we have seen the moist important program in sports and what may be the most important program in television history, Monday Night Football, move to our partners at ESPN. So that part doesn’t surprise us at all and I think that it’s healthy as cable and satellite continue to push closer to 100 percent penetration and availability. On the other side, we think that the MLB Network and the NFL network and the like are ways that sports leagues will go not just for distribution, but yet another way to communicate with their family of fans who really want to be on 24/7.

“I am always surprised as I travel the league to hear a number of players say, “I just saw so and so on NBA TV.” It is also an in-house channel and it also communicates with our fans and it does give us an outlet this year we will have had 96 NBA games and some several number of Playoff games. In fact, I was recently surprised to learn that we had some 400 games on NBATV: the NBA games, WNBA games, NBA D-League games, NBA summer league games, the World Championship games. This summer we will have the FIBA Americas Qualifying Tournament on, the Chinese Basketball Championship … in case some one wasn’t there watching Yi play at the Championships in a small Chinese town of 15 million people. We find it to be the right mix, but we believe that our main outlet will continue to be our partners at Disney and Time Warner.” Stern said.

One key to the NBA’s presentation of games on cable and network television the willingness of their partners to offer games in HD.

“This year we will have done 38 percent or there about. Next year we are going to on NBATV and League pass over 50 percent in HD. Now we have it on ESPN, ABC and TNT, but increasingly the regional sports channels are going to HD as well so the movement is accelerating and it does change the viewing experience and so I think you are going to see the anomaly is the game that is not being broadcast in HD; and then people are going to be talking about 3-D HD, but leave that for another time.” Stern said

The 2006-07 NCAA basketball season marked the first time college basketball benefited from the agreement between the NBA and the NBA Players Association that forces graduating high school players to play at least one year of college basketball. Two freshman who likely would have attempted to graduate from high school to the NBA by bypassing college basketball where Texas forward Kevin Durant and Ohio State’s center Greg Oden. Durant was college basketball’s player of the year and Oden led the Buckeye to the NCAA title game. It’s undeniable the two players benefited from a year of college basketball, something Stern noted. Stern also believes the NBA is better with the high school graduates playing at least a year of college basketball.

“I really think that the practical reasons are the intangible reasons. In some ways, the players are much better, the teams are able to make judgments about players and that’s huge. To see them play against a better brand of competition is extraordinary. Then to have them a year better developed both as players and as adults is terrific from a team prospective. And third, of course, is it’s just better basketball. I guess the intangibles, if you’d like to sort-of separate it, is that, I think, the players do get the opportunity to mature in a certain way for their own benefit and, in some cases, that maturation process will likely involve particular players who would’ve been encouraged to come to the NBA after high school, would have renounced their eligibility, but having gone to college learned that they had a way to go to improve their game to be NBA-quality players, or NBA-caliber players. That’s good for three people. That’s good for the school, that’s good for the player and that’s good for the NBA because that player won’t presumably be available for the Draft until there is sort of … the broader community feels that he is available. So I think it’s been a real win-win for us and I think that it’s been pretty good for the players and the colleges, too.

“The benefit is that these are better-known talents. He was a better player and a better-known player and that I assume will have a certain lift with the respect to the marketing component. It’s not unlike Carmelo Anthony and others who at least had a year of college as opposed to relatively unknown high school players.”

The NBA will end their two year stay in Oklahoma City tomorrow (Friday night) when the Hornets play their last home game of the year against the Denver Nuggets. The Hornets play their last three regular season games on the road. Stern plans on being in Oklahoma City.

“I am going to be in Oklahoma City, really for the purpose of saying thank you to the city of Oklahoma City because they have been extraordinary in their efforts, stepping up to help the Hornets and to provide a temporary home for them. So thanks, to Oklahoma City.

“The answer is: It could not have been better. It exceeded our expectation at every level. Mayor Mick Cornett, the city manager, the newspapers, the business community; but particularly the fans have been outstanding and they made the NBA and the Hornets feel very welcome. To answer your questions, I don’t have a team to send and I can’t tell you a date, but it’s my expectation that the NBA has not played its last game in Oklahoma City.”

Be it an NBA team (let’s remember the Seattle Sonics owner Clay Bennett who purchased the franchise from Seattle native Howard Schultz for $350 million on July 18, 2006) or an NHL team, Oklahoma City will be home to an NBA or NHL franchise in the not too distant future.

Last week Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman delivered a proposal to the NBA concerning Sin City’s interest in the NBA expanding to Las Vegas or the league allowing a team to move to Las Vegas. Goodman’s letter made it clear as far as the City of Las Vegas is concerned and the gaming association its business (betting on NBA games allowed) if and when the NBA has a team in Las Vegas. That wasn’t what Stern wanted to hear from Mayor Goodman.

“I can’t say that we convened a study group, there was a rather forthright and direct letter and we’re planning to include that letter when we send out the agenda and backup material to the Board on Friday and I will put in on the agenda for the meeting. I’d really rather be in a position to discuss that with my owners and make my recommendations for the first time to the owners. That’s a nice way of saying that I’m not going to discuss it at this point other than to say I’m always appreciative of communication from the Mayor, the County Commissioner and from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.”

Two NBA franchises that faced uncertainty at the start of the NBA season were the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Sonics. The NBA’s strategic plan for the Pacific Northwest began to unravel five years ago when the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis. Paul Allen wanted to unload the Portland Trailblazers last fall and Howard Schultz, the Starbucks founder, jumped ship on the NBA when he sold the Sonics to Bennett in July. Stern for one believes things are starting to settle down with the business affairs for both the Blazers and the Sonics.

“My response to that is, ‘Hooray!’ That is what we desperately wanted to happen. We know that Paul (Allen) is committed to rebuilding that franchise and reconnecting it to the community. We have a long and warm relationship with Todd Leiweke, who has been assigned the task of overseeing it and we think that good things are in store for the fans of Portland.

“We’re cautiously optimistic in terms of where things stand at the state level. I know time is getting short. The legislature adjourns April 22, and we’re hoping that there will be a vote prior to that point to authorize King County to utilize some of the tax revenues requested so as to fund a new arena. In the meantime, Clay Bennett is working hard with the City of Renton to secure a site. We were obviously pleased to hear that an agreement in principle has been reached with the people who own rights to the Boeing property that they are targeting for the possible arena site. And so, there is a long way to go still, in Seattle, but Clay has done some terrific work and ultimately the politicians and the people will speak to this.”

The NBA came under a barrage of criticism regarding the behavior of their players, especially after the league held its All-Game in Las Vegas. However, it was an NFL player Adam Pacman Jones who allegedly was at the center of a shooting on the Vegas strip in the hours immediately following the NBA All-Star Game. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell brought the hammer down on Jones this week, suspending Jones for the 2007 season as part of the NFL’s new player conduct code. The NFL players conduct code enables Goodell to offer a broad range of penalties against anyone who besmirches the NFL’s image. Is a similar conduct code in the NBA’s future?

“We have essentially the same powers that they (the NFL) moved up to. We’ve been working with the (Players) Union on this one for years and we’re happy with our processes. We’ve been actually beefed up considerably over the past several years as well. The infrastructure of the player programs, each of our teams has a player programs coordinator or higher that works with the players on the team. We have the advantage of having only 12 to 15 players on a team, so we’ve been working, not necessarily in the glare of the public light, with our teams and our players, to make the programming and programs available. And, in some cases, to spot at-risk players, because of what we know or because of their expressed behavior and the like. When players are having problems, they are asked to come in and visit with us – which they do. So, we very much like the process that we already have and we’re looking forward to our continued work with the Union to make sure that it remains strong.” Stern said

The NBDL expanded earlier this week to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Professional baseball’s player development program is structured through minor league baseball and each National Hockey League team is associated with at least one minor league hockey team. As the NBDL grows does David Stern believe in the not too distant future each NBA franchise will have its own minor league basketball team?

“What I’ve learned is that it is always good to be humbled, and the D-League has been a humbling experience. We are not in the cities that we started out in, and my guess is that there is always some movement and change when you’re in the minor leagues. I’m not saying we’re going to start the season with 16 (teams) next year. It might be 15, it might be 14 – I just don’t know; but it’s going to be more than we ended the season with. I would say that everyone knows we’re open for business on a community basis, and I would say it would probably take another six to seven years to get to where we want to get to with respect to the number (of teams). Or even as many as 10 (years, to get there); but it’s going to be steady. In some cases, we have to wait, depending upon geography, to assure that we get enough teams to make travel workable. For example, in the Northeast – we’re sort of moving there, but we’re not there yet. So it’s not like we’re going to put one team in Wilkes-Barre and say “That’s it.” We’re experimenting with a lot of different pods on a map, but I think that we’re probably six, eight, 10 years away from having a 30-team league.”

One of the more interesting NBDL franchise this year has been the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The D-Fenders (here’s a shout out to their PR department one of the best in the business) play their home games at the Staples Center before Lakers games. Does Stern believe the model being used in Los Angeles is something other NBA teams should consider?

“Well, that’s really a different model, which we’re open to, as shown to us by the L.A. team, but the model that we’re working on is to have people in other communities who are willing to recognize that the entertainment experience, the basketball connection, the dates in a building, really enhance the viability of life in a city – more often than not a smaller city, and that’s the model. Even with respect to some of our other teams, I’m not sure that the Lakers will always have their team at the Staples Center. I think they did that in anticipation of a smaller building in the generalized vicinity, and I think that is something that may happen. I think that our teams may decide that these are great community outreach opportunities where the teams can play in the same city but in a different neighborhood, and be sort of an oasis of learning as well as basketball and community service. So, we think that some of our teams may follow the Lakers’ lead, but we don’t anticipate that other teams will play their games as preludes to regular season games, although we have no opposition to that in principle. It’s just not part of the model that I think is going to come to pass.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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