THE CHANGING GAME

Heading into a new season, pro basketball has problems. There are too many teams, too few superstars and not enough money to go around. But there is a way out that the two leagues may one day adopt despite their natural inclination to play a pat hand
October 20, 1968

St. Louis is the 10th largest metropolitan area in the country, with a population of 2,351,000. Last spring Ben Kerner, a pro basketball owner for two decades and a pioneer in the game, sold the St. Louis Hawks to an Atlanta group and got out of the sport. There are several good reasons why the Hawks failed: a bad building, competition from other sports, a team that, however good, lacked a popular hero. But there was something subtler, as stated by Kerner himself: "I found out that even if everything worked well, I still couldn't make it."

Kerner did not want to leave the game. He looked into buying the Baltimore Bullets, a team that has two vital assets: a good arena and a dazzling young ballplayer, Earl Monroe. Baltimore is the 12th-largest metropolitan area. "Let me tell you, too," Kerner says, "Baltimore was a very fair deal. The price was just right. And then I put the numbers together. Like St. Louis, there is no way. You can't make it there. You got to go where you have people to have a chance."

It is a jarring commentary on the economics of modern professional sports that the 10th and 12th most densely populated areas in the country have too few people to support a franchise. It suggests that only the giant cities—possibly only New York and Los Angeles—are sufficiently large. "You can expect that," Kerner says. "Look at the history. The game started out with the Sheboygans and the Tri-Cities. Then it moved up to the Fort Waynes and the Syracuses. They fade out and the St. Louises and the Detroits come in. Now they can't make it any longer."

Despite such supporting evidence—more than half of the National Basketball Association teams lose money and in their first year all of the American Basketball Association teams did—pro basketball continues to draw investors, because it is still considered a low-overhead, get-rich-quick sport and one, moreover, in which one extraordinary player can make your venture profitable. Thus, while the past decade has been marked by expansion and wheeling and dealing in all pro sports, basketball has exhibited the greatest change. Baseball has grown 50%, hockey 100%, football 117% and basketball 213%. Where there were eight teams, now there are 25—many in trouble. While predictions are hazardous, there is good reason to guess that an era of contraction is lurking like a bear market for both basketball and baseball. Leagues, before long, may be made up of teams that represent whole regions, not single metropolitan areas. There will be fewer teams, but this shrinking need not indicate a defeat for either sport. Instead, if prepared for and understood, consolidation can prove a healthy move.

But why should basketball and baseball contract while football continues to thrive in, say, Green Bay, a country town whose population of 93,900 may at first glance be mistaken for its zip code? The answer appears to be that football might best be described as an Event Sport. Each game, separated by time, is celebrated as an occasion. There are only seven home games a year, and the same spectators, having given each other $50 season tickets for Christmas and arranged to meet each other in the same bar before every game, attend each week, pointing for the Event as much as the players. And since away games are televised, followers of a team see every game it plays and are totally involved.

The opposite of the Event Sport is what might be called a Linear Sport. It proceeds day upon day, game after game, with no time to isolate or especially celebrate games as events. What important occasions there are—a winning streak or a try for a record—can only be acknowledged near the end or after the fact, usually too late for the box office to profit.

Baseball, of course, is the ultimate in Linear Sport (though it does become an Event Sport at World Series time). Fans can become intensely involved in the game merely by watching the box scores, relating them to the past, to the whole, to infinity. Like the horoscope and stock-market listings, the statistics are always there in the paper, and even rabid partisans can follow their teams closely without ever attending a game. This is not a whole lot of help to an owner who depends mainly upon gate receipts for his revenue.

The two Linear Sports that are particularly interesting because they are successful are ice hockey and—don't snicker—the Roller Derby. Maybe it is more than coincidence that both are rough sports played on skates. Whatever, hockey succeeds while lousing up all the formulas. It is played almost entirely by foreigners, it has not proved appealing on TV and there is not enough scoring. But it thrives. Presumably, as H. Rap Brown said, "violence is as American as cherry pie."

The Roller Derby, on the other hand, offers serious lessons for all other Linear Sports. It plays almost every night for much of the year, but a home team plays at different locations within a wide home area. One city is not saturated by the action. The Derby becomes, in a sense, an Event at each different city when it plays there.

Certainly the Derby operates on a much smaller scale than do any of the more celebrated sports, but the principle of regionalism that has been successfully employed by Gerald Seltzer, Roller Derby president, is directly applicable to basketball and baseball. All Linear Sports, in fact, may soon learn that they cannot survive if they are to let themselves be bound by the ground rules for professional sports established half a century ago, when the population was centered in various downtowns, all connected by train tracks.

Basketball particularly can learn from the Roller Derby. Of all team sports it is easily the most mobile. Yet its teams continue to tie themselves to one downtown site in one city. Part of the trouble is the fan, who fervently believes in the home team. He got that way because the teams, usually in league with politicians, convinced him that a city without a team was second-class. It was his civic duty to love the Royal Sonic-jets.

"No sports team deserves support from a city any more than the corner laundry does," says Seltzer. The kicker is, of course, that teams feel no reciprocal need to support the city. The people of Phoenix will be asked to support the NBA Suns this year, the first major league team in that city. One of the owners is Bobbie Gentry, the singer, whose philosophy of ownership she recently explained to Earl Wilson, the columnist.

"I just bought a basketball team," she said. "Ed Ames, Henry Mancini, Tony Curtis, Andy Williams and me. About $50,000 each, I think. If we don't do well in Phoenix, we can move it somewhere else."

So now fans are warned even before a franchise arrives that they had better support it or else: one team, one city, under God, bound together, inseparable. The concept of sharing a team with one or more cities is still treated as anathema. But for how long? The regional concept may soon become a necessity and before long we may find teams reeducating the public in the virtues of multiple-city support of one home club.

To understand the full potential of the regional franchise, let us offer the new Atlanta Hawks as a contrast to what could be a classic regional franchise—the whole state of North Carolina. Atlanta is the 21st largest metropolitan area, with about 1,300,000 people and one suitable arena. Each NBA team has 41 home games. Aware that it probably would not draw well at all 41, the Atlanta management tried to peddle a few of its games to other Southeastern cities as other NBA teams have done before them. The Hawks had virtually no success. That sort of thing, which is more like oldtime big-city condescension than regionalism, does not go over very well with the rubes anymore. Atlanta did set up a good television network, but the games are all played in Atlanta, so the network cannot serve to entice very many distant fans to pay money and attend Hawk games.

Now assume that the Hawks had moved to North Carolina, a great basketball area of medium-size cities with good arenas. These cities—Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro/High Point, Raleigh and Durham/Chapel Hill—just about total the same population as Atlanta. North Carolina might comfortably be expected to outdraw Atlanta, however, because for one thing, smaller cities have less entertainment competition, less traffic and therefore invariably draw proportionately better than larger cities. More important, each of the North Carolina cities would have about eight or 10 games apiece, more of an Event schedule. Moreover, regional television would help the draw. A game in Charlotte beamed to Greensboro could be expected to encourage greater attendance the next time the club played in Greensboro.

There will be 1,003 regular-season pro games this year, far too many for the 25 city franchises or even 25 regional franchises. With so many teams there is dilution. It is not a dilution of the overall talent—few are the observers in any sport who can detect with authority a change in the level of play from year to year—but one that limits the number of appearances the few outstanding players can make in each city each year. The night the big star is not in town is the night the home team does not draw well.

As a guess, 16 is the optimum number of teams that pro basketball can be expected to support nationally in the years to come. Should the two leagues stop warring and agree to restructure along regional lines, here is a possible arrangement. Only a few of the suggested sites—notably in New England—lack adequate buildings.

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Because basketball has the sites it could well be the first sport to embrace the concept of the regional franchise. Professional sports, however, traditionally react to pressures rather than anticipate opportunities, so baseball may find itself leading the way to regionalism. The reason is simple. Baseball is running out of cities that possess adequate stadiums. When baseball decides it must consolidate, many obvious pairings may be expected. San Francisco-Oakland, Baltimore-Washington, Cincinnati-Cleveland, San Diego-Anaheim, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, and even possibly Kansas City-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee or Minneapolis/St. Paul-Milwaukee.

It is difficult to conceive that cities will continue to permit huge, luxury baseball stadiums to be built with public funds. In a time of obsessive social concern one cannot imagine San Francisco approving the suggested $40 million downtown replacement for Candlestick Park. At the same time, indoor arenas are blossoming as never before. While stadiums rarely serve anybody but the owners and the fans of major league football and baseball, any arena is a live facility that is in use almost every day of the year, and for a wide variety of community events.

Consider Baltimore, where the city has built both a stadium and a civic center. In the fiscal year 1966-1967, 95 of 99 stadium events were athletic in nature. In the Civic Center there were 301 events and only about one-third of them were athletic. In the mid-'50s Milwaukee and Portland agreed to build public edifices, each costing about $8 million. Milwaukee's was a stadium. Last year, before the White Sox started coming in for token visits, a total of 18 events (eight nonsporting) were held there. Portland built an arena. Last year 313 events of all types were held there and less than half of the total attendance of 1,565,000 viewed sports events. Milwaukee has a white elephant and dreams. Portland has a vibrant building that serves the city in many ways.

With these facts repeated in every section of the country, it is becoming as difficult to reconcile stadium construction as it is to stop voters and officials alike from pushing for new arenas. In December 1970 the Norfolk Cultural and Convention Center of Virginia is scheduled for completion. It will serve the entire lower Chesapeake, an area of nearly 1 million people. The building will have an 11,800-seat arena, a theater and a convention hall that will draw an estimated 1 million spectators to 2,000 events in its first year of operation. Only 200 of those will be athletic. And who is paying? Two-thirds of the projected $30 million cost will come from the Federal Government, which authorized the building in, of all things, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965. When other Congressmen get a look at the Norfolk plum, the arena boom should be on in earnest.

The existence of these new arenas in every Middlesex, village and farm in America should be encouragement for basketball to restructure regionally. The logistics of travel in the sport have always been simple, anyway, since a traveling squad never includes more than a dozen men, and equipment means only sneakers, T shirts and a few rolls of tape. Neither does the playing floor, compact and simple, depend upon the idiosyncrasies of nature, ground-keeper or ice machines.

The increased travel demands will work a hardship on the players, as they no doubt will immediately object. But they are already flying a lot. Rudy LaRusso, for instance, commutes 400 miles to play with the San Francisco Warriors, because he prefers living outside of Los Angeles to living in San Francisco. More to the point, the players are not going to have any choice about travel if they wish to be paid in the style to which they have become accustomed. In large part it is their demand for big salaries that is making it impossible for franchises like the Hawks to survive. Without a big-name, high-priced star among them, the Hawks still averaged almost $28,000 apiece last year. The NBA pays its players a higher average salary than any league in any sport.

This year the pay is higher than ever, and for the main attractions—Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, et al.—it is sweet almost beyond any athlete's most avaricious yearnings. This week they and the several hundred other almost equally gifted men of the NBA and ABA begin new seasons at 18 old city stands and seven new ones. Scouting reports of the players and the teams begin on the next page. Enjoy the teams while you have them by yourself, but do not count on having them always. As ex-Owner Ben Kerner says, the old system does not work very well when you put the numbers together.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

EAST

ARENA LOCATIONS

NEW YORK KNICKS

New York City

NEW YORK NETS

Long Island, Northern New Jersey

NEW ENGLAND CELTICS

Boston, Providence, New Haven, Springfield

PENNSYLVANIA 76ERS

Philadelphia, Pittsburgh

CHESAPEAKE FEDERALS

Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk

CAROLINA PINES

Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham/Chapel Hill

ERIE NATIONALS

Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse

MIDEAST PRESIDENTS

Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Louisville

WEST

SOUTHERN BELLES

Atlanta, Miami, Memphis, New Orleans

MISSOURI HAWKS

St. Louis, Kansas City

NORTHERN TRAVELERS

Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul

TEXAS RANGERS

Houston, Dallas

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Los Angeles (Inglewood)

SOUTHLAND SUNS

San Diego, Phoenix, Anaheim

BAY WARRIORS

San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose

NORTHWEST SONICS

Seattle, Portland, Denver

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)