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The ongoing mystery of the NBA is why it cares about small-market teams more than the fans do. Oh, fans might say they're concerned about the welfare of the league's smaller outposts and believe the NBA conspires against the lesser markets. Yet those same fans never bother to support the lesser markets, even when it costs nothing more than the electricity needed to power their TV sets.
The Memphis-San Antonio Western Conference finals struggled to draw even half the television audience on ESPN that the Boston-Miami conference finals did the year before. NBA Finals ratings over the years have consistently shown that a shortage of superstars means no shot at a double-digit TV rating. And superstars tend to gravitate toward the big markets.
"Who cares about TV ratings?" is the commonly heard whine from those who don't understand or care about the business of sports. Advertisers and television executives care. And since advertisers pay the TV networks, and the networks are the ones writing billion-dollar checks to sports leagues, there's plenty of reason for the NBA to care about what they care about.
Yet the NBA continues to go out of its way to support the smaller markets. It was willing to lop off 20 percent of the 2011-12 season with a lockout to get a collective bargaining agreement better suited to the have-nots. It allowed the SuperSonics to leave Seattle for Oklahoma City and kept the Kings from leaving Sacramento to replace them. This isn't a perception; it's David Stern's stated goal.
"Everything that we have done in terms of collective bargaining is designed to level the playing field and allow teams that are well managed, no matter what their market size, to be in the Finals," the outgoing commissioner said in his last pre-Finals address to the media.
"This is a league that prides itself on Oklahoma City, Memphis, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, Indianapolis, on and on and on."
Perhaps they give the league pride, but they don't bring in revenue. Stern said his goal is to make the NBA Finals more like the Super Bowl, which is a television event regardless of the participants. But the NBA will never be the NFL because NFL television money comes from national contracts, not the regional deals that create such huge discrepancies in basketball and baseball. The NFL also has a hard salary cap that makes free agency more restrictive.
The fact that the free agency or trades of just a few premium players can create super teams is actually a strength of the NBA. The Heat have consistently delivered NBA Finals viewership more than any team since the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. And the Heat even managed to do the impossible -- add suspense and intrigue to the NBA's interminable regular season -- through their initial struggles in Year 1 and their 27-game winning streak this season.
But as the new collective bargaining agreement is phased in it will become prohibitively expensive for the Heat to stay together -- or for a replacement to be created.
Stern was asked if the promoter in him could appreciate what the Heat meant to the league and want to see them stay together.
"As a promoter, absolutely," Stern said. "But there are 29 other bosses I have that think it's a great system. And other than the Heat and South Florida media, our league owners think this is a great idea. Because we have owners who want very much to compete. And they want to be able to tell their fans they can compete.
"The Heat have done a great job. They've put together a great roster. They put together perhaps a team for the ages. It has consequences that they are now dealing with, and actually they're much less harsh than the consequences that would have followed had we gotten what we really wanted in the collective bargaining."
It's not 29 other owners. Surely the Lakers and Knicks wouldn't mind the freedom to dispense their TV revenue on their roster in whatever manner they saw fit. But those weren't the voices driving the collective bargaining negotiations. The league was led by the teams who are contributing the least amount of money and bringing the fewest amount of people to the TV sets.
The problem is, in the process of creating a system to deter the Heat and Lakers, the NBA also made it harder on the Thunder and Grizzlies, two teams who traded key players in the past nine months in part due to financial considerations. The luxury tax is just as punitive for them, but they don't have the same revenue streams to compensate for it.
Why should the fans care? Because imbalanced basketball is better than no basketball at all. If the goal is always to accommodate the lesser markets, it won't be met. And eventually that will mean another work stoppage to try to rein in salaries.
If the salary cap, rookie salary cap and luxury tax from previous collective bargaining agreements weren't enough to bring competitive balance and widespread financial health to the league, why should we believe the current CBA will magically accomplish it? We've seen that the owners are willing to sacrifice games to get what they want.
So enjoy these star-laden Finals, which feature four former Finals MVPs in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. You're less likely to see clusters of talent like this in the future. You might get Milwaukee versus Sacramento, though and you won't be watching.