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NBA Dominating Sports Headlines With Free Agency News

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Posted: Friday, July 5, 2019 11:07 am

I worked in the NBA in the mid to late 1970s for the Kansas City Kings franchise and from the mid 80s to the early 90s for the Miami Heat and then again the Kings when they had re-located to Sacramento. I worked in sales, marketing and broadcasting positions and it would be fair to say the 70s years were tough going for NBA franchises, especially small market teams. Reference was made last week in this space about the NBA Finals being shown on tape delay after the local news, which would give you a pretty good indication of the difficulty selling the product nationally and locally.

As an example, our ownership group in Kansas City consisted of 10 very well-to-do local businessmen. Unfortunately, none of them were among the class of stupid wealthy owners who are able to finance successful franchises. On more than one occasion during the early days, I was designated to drive and collect checks from our owners, because the team didn’t have enough money to cover the player per diem for a 10-day road trip. The league mandated the per diem had to be distributed in cash to the players at the beginning of the road trip.

Revenue from ticket sales, individuals, groups and season tickets, far exceeded national television income from CBS. National cable revenue from the USA Network didn’t begin until 1979, and that was a three-year $1.5 million deal. Pre-season games were spotted around the country and struggled to break even at the gate. I once helped run a pre-season game featuring the Kansas City Kings vs. the Atlanta Hawks in Fargo, North Dakota. The attendance could be characterized as ‘sparse.’

Huge broadcast contracts from ABC, ESPN and Turner Sports changed the landscape of the game. The NBA now is midway through a nine-year, $24 billion contract, which runs through the 2024-25 season. That equates to $2.7 billion annually or $90 million per team. Since the NBA has a revenue sharing agreement with their players, half of all revenue (with a few exceptions) generated by the 30 member teams and the NBA itself goes to player salaries. It’s a different world.

So the free agent salary numbers bandied about starting Sunday are difficult for me to relate to. The ability for teams to consider paying Kevin Durant, $41 million (total contract four years, $164 million total) while he is rehabbing his ruptured Achilles Tendon for the next year, is difficult to fathom. The same concept applies to former teammate Golden State Warrior Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the recently concluded NBA Finals. If all goes well, Thompson will miss half of the coming season, where he will be paid $38 million as part of his new five-year $190 million deal with the Warriors.

Word is starting to leak out from the Durant camp that he felt underappreciated over the past three seasons with the Golden State franchise, during which the Warriors won two NBA titles. For their part, the Warriors thus far have taken the public high road. Co-Chairman and CEO Joe Lacob, announced the team would retire Durant’s jersey No. 35, saying, “Durant carried himself with class and dignity both on and off the court.”

My contention is star players are unique show business personalities who can perform feats members of the general populace can’t. They put people in the seats and eyes on television sets.

Where teams get hurt financially are long-term deals with over-rated or average players who fans don’t care about. There were several examples to choose from the free agent signing period including Ricky Rubio, who signed a three-year, $51 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. Rubio, who can neither defend nor shoot the ball, will turn 29 years of get age by the beginning of the coming season. In other words, what you see now is what you get. There aren’t likely to be any changes to his game, or new skills learned during the off-season.

Another example of over-paying for players is the Chicago Bulls signing of guard-forward Tomas Satoransky, formerly a backup for a sub-par Washington Wizards club, who averaged 8.9 points, 5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game last year. The Bulls thought a three-year deal worth a total of $30 million was a good idea for Satoransky. If included in a police lineup of other six foot, seven inch people, picking Satoransky out of that group would be difficult.

On the star side of the payroll, NBA point guards signed contracts totaling more than $1 billion through Monday, with notable examples being a $196 million extension for Portland’s Damian Lillard; $170 million for Jamal Murray with the Denver Nuggets; $141 million for both Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets; $117 million for D’Angelo Russell and the Golden State Warriors; and $85 million for combo-guard Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers. There are many more, but you get the idea. All player signings in Day 1 of free agency totaled over $2 billion, covering more than 40 separate deals.

Back in the mid-70s, when the season ended, you began preparations for the NBA Player Draft and once that came and went, you had a few weeks to catch your breath, finish off the exhibition game schedule, and plan your sales and marketing approach for the new year. Arrival of the CBS Television rights fee check meant we could get current on the previous season’s bills, putting at least a temporary halt to collection phone calls from American Express.

Another big change are games featuring drafted rookies and free agents, which began Monday, July 1, and were sprinkled around regional sports networks for broadcast. The larger event is the NBA Summer League, played at and sponsored by MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, which will run for 11 days and include 83 total games.

The early highlight game in Las Vegas will feature former Duke University teammates, No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans) against No. 3 pick RJ Barrett (New York Knicks). That altogether meaningless game will start July 5 at 6:30 p.m. PDT. Many of the NBA Summer League games will be broadcast live on either ESPN or NBA TV. Sunday, ESPN had a five-hour live show devoted to NBA Free Agent signings.

The ringleader for all of this is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has quickly earned a reputation the most forward-thinking leader in professional sports. Both by plan and happy accident, the NBA has taken the outreach, immediacy and popularity provided by social media to stratospheric levels. It’s rare that a media cycle passes without an NBA player saying something controversial on social media, with one or more other players responding, with media types and fans alike immediately taking sides and lapping it all up. What did we do before the re-Tweet was invented?

As of Tuesday morning, the last major free agent destination to be determined, the fate of San Diego State’s and NBA Playoff MVP Kawhi Leonard, had yet to be announced. That could quite literally be yesterday’s news by the time this paper lands on your front lawn. Sports talk radio and other pundits have opined Leonard’s choices have come down to staying with the Toronto Raptors, or signing with one of the teams from his hometown of Los Angeles, either the Lakers or the Clippers. No matter where Leonard’s decision takes him, the power in the NBA has shifted away from the Warriors and has yet to firmly settle on any one franchise. A recent panel of pro basketball writers appearing on ESPN’s “The Jump” couldn’t agree on a clear favorite to win the Western Conference title next season.

For me, it’s fun to follow all these developments from afar, and marvel at how far the NBA has come. Now if Commissioner Silver could find a way to dictate that NBA referees will call traveling during games and eliminate the Eurostep, then everything would be just fine in the Association.

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