Thursday, November 01, 2007

David Stern couldn’t be happier its time to Hoop it Up II

The 2007-08 National Basketball Association began in earnest Wednesday evening with eight games and 16 teams tipping off their seasons. NBA Commissioner David Stern, who attended Tuesday night’s San Antonio Spurs season opener Tuesday night, had a little time to share in the Spurs moment in time (their third in five years) before getting back to the day-to-day business of running the NBA yesterday. The challenges the NBA will face in the coming months -- considerable to say the least. The NBA’s image is facing a full frontal assault from the fallout of disgraced and now former NBA official Tim Donaghy and the aftermath of the sexual discrimination lawsuit Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks left the league to deal with. But the issues Stern and the league will be forced to deal with in the coming months only begin with those two.

David Stern, if nothing else, has always been a glass is half filled person – his belief in the NBA is never-ending as he told the USA Today.

"Amazing," he says, "is where 81 points (by Kobe Bryant) happens, where Ben Wallace's hair happens, where Yao Ming happens, where caring happens." He pauses, then adds, "Where Donaghy happens, where clubbing happens, where registered weapons happen. We invite our fans to mesh up whatever happens. It's all there.

"With the playoffs and preseason, we have close to 1,500 episodes of the best reality programming that plays around the world. That reality happens, fortunately or unfortunately, on the court and off the court. It includes everything.

"We are the absolute reflection of what's going on out there in the world," Stern says. "Anyone who doesn't think so doesn't know what's going on in the world."

All legitimate points – but does that mean Stern is being blind to what’s taking place, around the NBA? Never. David Stern is far too good at what he does to not understand what lies ahead for the NBA this year.

China remains very important to the growth of the NBA. What began with Yao Ming arriving in the NBA five years ago (at the start of the 2002-03 season), continued with the NBA integrating their marketing machine into a series of games in China that started with Ming’s Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings playing a pair of pre-season games in October 2004 in Beijing and Shanghai, continues this year with the arrival of the next ‘great’ Chinese superstar Yi Jianlian the Milwaukee Bucks number one overall pick in last June’s NBA draft.

“Let's start with Yi Jianlian. In our recent trip, we met with the head of CCTV 5, which is the sports network, their equivalent of ESPN. They apologized because they were only in 60% of the 350 television households in China. You can do the math. Roughly double the number of households we have here. They're going to do between 92 and 96 games. Their big excitement is Milwaukee against Houston on Chinese New Year. So it's absolutely buzzing with respect to another well known player who is from Guangdong province rather than Shanghai. Competition is keen amongst different cities, Ghangzou versus Shanghai. So from the NBA's perspective, having another bona fide Chinese superstar in waiting, he's coming here with less exposure and less experience than Yao, but there are very high hopes for him in his homeland.

“In Milwaukee, aside from the fact that he's seen as a great player, I think that Milwaukee is going to be on the map as far as Chinese awareness, Chinese businesses. Sort of interesting things have a way of happening because of the connectivity between a country as large as China and a city like Milwaukee.”

The Bucks who opened their season at home last night showcasing the number six overall pick seem to appreciate the impact Jianlian could have on the evolution of basketball in the world’s most populated country.

"It's the essence of a sixth pick for a franchise," Larry Krystkowiak the Bucks head coach said of the Bucks' lottery prize. "It's exactly what you're looking for, a guy with a lot of skill, size and athletic ability.

"He's a younger kid that hasn't played in great, great competition, but it seems to me he's getting better each time he's in practice because the competition is better."

"Another popular player in China will help basketball there, and will become a vehicle for many young kids to have an opportunity also," said Bucks assistant coach Jarinn Akana, who has scouted in the country in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

"The more people who play basketball, the more chance you have of getting a big-time talent."

There remain a number of serious franchise issues Stern and the NBA are going to be forced to deal with in the near future. Earlier this week a Washington State judge ruled the Seattle Sonics will have to respect the remaining three years of the team’s lease at the KeyArena. Sonics owner Clay Bennett (an Oklahoma City resident) wants to leave for Oklahoma City at the end of the current NBA season. Bennett will meet with the media Friday to address what his next move will be following his loss in the courts earlier this week. Last week Stern offered this on the Sonics:

“I think that every situation is individualized to the facts. From a league perspective, I think it's fair to say that there was a very sort of proactive anti Seattle Sonics movement, which its two featured premises, one legislation by the City Council, openly voted upon, passed overwhelmingly by the people of Seattle, saying any advance of funds with respect to projects had to bear the same rate of return as a treasury bond, which would make that kind of unique in the annals of American arena building.

“The second point, I was out there, I did testify, I did meet with state legislators, the second point was, as I understand it, was a request for there to be an extension of the tax, which currently is used to fund the baseball and football stadiums. The speaker out there said that it would get out of committee over his strenuous objections, shall we say. So there was no heart whatsoever for assisting the Sonics team.

“Into that, and I've been out there twice on this subject, there didn't even seem to be a critical path to be followed. We were in consultation with the team that hired a whole new set of lobbyists and PR consultants and arena consultants, did everything right. We'd love to have found the path that would see them staying. But right now it just seems that either they'll be there for the duration of their lease or they won't depending on the outcome of these litigations or some divine inspiration that someone may have with respect to a new arena and a suitable funding for it. That's just the way I think the owners look at it and I think that's the way I feel about it.”

Tuesday, speaking with ESPN, Stern offered this on the future of the Sonics in Seattle:

"In the absence of plans for a new building, I would say that my sense is that by the end of their lease, there won't be anything keeping the team in Seattle," Stern told ESPN on Tuesday.

Asked how that made him feel, Stern said, "Bad. It's been a great marriage, and sometimes positions sort of harden in a funny way."

Three more years of a lame duck franchise in Seattle will be much like the last three years the Montreal Expos played out the string in Montreal. Three terrible years of basketball support in the community (will any business or sports fan care to support a team and an owner committed to leaving town?) and Bennett likely losing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Seattle Sonics aren’t going to be a dog’s breakfast; they’re going to be a dog’s breakfast buffet.

While Stern has all but washed his hands when it comes to the Sonics, the same can’t be said of the Sacramento Kings. Nearly a year to the day the Maloof brothers taxpayer driven dreams of a new state-of-the art arena went down in flames, Stern emissary John Moag continues to try and broker an agreement to get a new arena built, and Stern is ready to do whatever he can to help the Kings stay where they are (and in a new arena).

“If there were a role for me, the answer is absolutely, yes. But as we watch for an opening for an intelligent path I mean, Sacramento, the team is a fixture. Everyone has expressed that they want them to stay. The statements of support on an ongoing basis from the city, the county, the governor have been very good. It's a completely different situation.

“I just don't want to offend people by just coming parachuting in saying, Okay, this is the way it should be. I tried that, and my track record is not very good in Seattle or in Olympia. I don't know that I really add anything to the situation.”

The facts being as they are – it’s clear both the Kings and the Sonics will need new facilities if they are going continue playing in their current markets. Seattle’s KeyArena and Sacramento’s Arco Arena do not offer the amenities an NBA franchise needs to compete economically in today’s NBA. It is interesting nonetheless that while the Sonics’ situation appears to be coming to a head, there is no end is sight for the challenges the Kings face in Sacramento.

If the NBA is facing facility issues with the Sonics and Kings, an even bigger question the NBA will face in the next few years is the state of the New Orleans Hornets. George Shinn, who moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans, may have believed he had found a home in Oklahoma City’s Ford Center-- the building the Hornets called home for the last two years. The NBA did made the right decision in moving the Hornets back to the Big Easy but it remains to be seen if the New Orleans market will support NBA basketball full time.

“My own internal benchmark is I certainly wanted them to shatter any notion that it would be worse than it was before Katrina. They're in a better position than they were in economically before Katrina hit. That to me is the base case. That's very exciting for us.

“Now whether, in fact, the city will ultimately support at the corporate level and fan level a team that's young, exciting, has an increasing payroll, remains to be seen. But the Hornets certainly have an organization that seems to be up for it. They've hired up, they've moved back, and they've embraced the community. There's a little bit sort of strange reporting that says, Well, New Orleans used to be 400, it's only 200. That may be the true, but that's not the base against which the Hornets draw. It's not just the city proper but from a broader array of parishes, wards, you name it. So there's some optimism on our part that this team can be supported by the business community, which is making large infrastructure investments, and is hiring more people and the like. Those people will be watching the team on television and attending their games. The businesses will view sports as an opportunity to demonstrate on an ongoing basis the vitality of the community.

“So we're optimistic but we're not Pollyanna ish. It's yet to be proven, about you we want to be a part of proving it and be a part of New Orleans' revitalization.”

With all of the challenges David is facing is one of the industries looking at retiring anytime in the near future? Stern heads into his 25th year as the acknowledged sports industry leader. Those within the industry told the USA Today they beloved the NBA will survive the current problems the league and Stern are facing.

"He really is a master at redirecting the focus," says Andy Appleby, CEO of Rochester, Mich.-based firm General Sports and Entertainment. "There is so much content that happens every single day of the season. It more than overshadows the issues. What makes him so special is he's really hands on."

"When I first broke in, a scandal like the referee problem could have bankrupted the league," says Don Nelson, the Golden State Warriors coach and former NBA player. "Right now we're so big and the commissioner has done such a wonderful job, we can get through almost anything."

And the glass being half full analogy being a big part of David Stern’s persona – the last word goes to Stern.

"(Michael) Vick? Gone. (Barry) Bonds? Gone. Donaghy? Gone," Stern told the USA Today. "The Patriots are undefeated. The Red Sox (won) the World Series. Who's talking about the issues? Who's talking about Vick or … Bonds? They're focusing on the game.

"Maybe the issues never go away. They're always in the background. They're the fabric. They're the texture, or the quilt, that is your sport. … You educate people, you tuck that in and you move on. It's always a part of you."

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN and USA Today

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