In his elegant corner office at the Manhattan headquarters of the National Basketball Association, Commissioner Larry O'Brien leaned back in his chair and stacked his feet atop his desk. "I wouldn't say we have no problems in the NBA," he said, "but you can see from my empty desk here that there certainly is no crisis. In fact, for the first time in my four seasons as commissioner I can say that the NBA is stable. Stable is the best word that can be used to describe the NBA."
Of course, O'Brien also believes that the NBA is "exciting," that it has "the greatest athletes in the world," that, according to every survey he's seen, "basketball is the favorite sport among Americans below the age of 35," and that "the potential for our sport goes right off toward the sunset."
But "stable" definitely is his buzz word. And indeed, the league is in good shape financially; no teams are losing the kind of money they were before the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, and only New Jersey and Indiana are even slightly shaky. But stability can also imply stagnation, and that is precisely what those twin indicators of public appeal—attendance and television ratings—show. Both are disappointing, raising serious questions about the future of the sport.
Twelve of the 22 teams are drawing fewer fans than they did a year ago for the same number of playing dates. League-wide, attendance is down 3%, after 621 of 902 games. However, two of the less competitive teams wouldn't be doing nearly so well if they hadn't changed sites. The Detroit Pistons (up 56%) moved from downtown Cobo Hall to the suburban Pontiac Silverdome, and the San Diego Clippers (up 30%) moved from Buffalo. And two of the better teams are benefiting from increased capacity. In San Antonio, where 6,000 seats were added to the HemisFair, attendance is up 27%. The Seattle SuperSonics, one of the best draws in the league, moved from the 14,098-seat Coliseum to the Kingdome, which has a capacity of 27,894 for basketball, and attendance is up 45%. But winning doesn't guarantee a larger gate: attendance at Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where the world champion Washington Bullets play, is up only 3%.
However, the most alarming news is that attendance in the big four markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia is down drastically: the Knicks (11%) and Bulls (31%) are once-strong teams that have become woefully weak, but the 76ers (19%) and Lakers (11%) are bona fide championship contenders. "People I talk to around Los Angeles all tell me that there isn't a great deal of interest in either the Lakers or the NBA," says Laker Coach Jerry West.
Likewise, national television ratings are down a whopping 26%. The first four regular-season Sunday CBS telecasts were beaten soundly by everything the other networks threw at them, including Superstars and boxing (ABC), and college basketball (NBC).
Certainly, having weak teams in the major television markets cuts deeply into network ratings, especially when those markets are already saturated with local telecasts, and cable and satellite feeds of pro, college and high school basketball. In Manhattan, for instance, a fan with cable TV can watch as many as 14 games a week with a little dial switching. It stands to reason that Sunday is hardly a special day for the NBA in New York, as long as the Knicks are not a factor.
"We definitely need a strong team in New York," says Houston President Ray Patterson. After all, it was in the early part of this decade, when the Knicks won two championships, that the NBA came to be hailed as the "Sport of the '70s." However, none of the teams has yet offered to hold a fire sale of players to help them out.
Thus Sonny Werblin, the veteran entrepreneur who was hired in December 1977 as president of Madison Square Garden expressly to pump new life into the Knicks, is not so sure of the league's good intentions. "If they want us to be strong, why won't anyone trade with New York?" he says. "I'll tell you. It's part of the 'Kill New York syndrome.' People want to see us fail."
Whether or not this is true, the Knicks' policy for the past few years has helped establish the fact that high-priced superstars often cause more trouble than they're worth—and don't guarantee winning records, much less full houses.
Denver General Manager Carl Scheer believes that all the NBA doomsday talk "would be academic were it not for the unimaginative and inept management in New York."
But blaming the Knicks for all the NBA's troubles is illogical. Just like the NBA, the NFL took off on New York success, but pro football has done splendidly even though the Giants and Jets have had poor records and little national attention for years. And baseball did just as well in those years when the once-powerful Yankees were in eclipse.
Although CBS has been properly criticized for treating its telecasts as little more than a bridge between a refrigerator race and a golf tournament, and for further compounding its error by showing regional games rather than focusing attention on one big national game, it makes no more sense to place the bulk of the blame for the league's problems on the network than on the Knicks. Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of programming at CBS Sports, must know that he has an inferior product. In fact, he was the man who bought college basketball for NBC in 1975, and in 1976 issued charts showing that college basketball killed the NBA in households with $15,000-plus incomes, the kind of earnings that attract advertisers.
Far more realistic reasons for the league's troubles lie within the game itself. The teams play a tedious 82-game schedule that begins during the World Series and doesn't end until early April; then the playoffs begin and go on until June, when most spectators have long since wearied of watching a winter sport. The seven games of last year's championship series between Washington and Seattle stretched over 18 days—for television. Instead of reflecting the beauty and intensity of the sport, the series was about as exciting as the pro bowlers' tour, whose ratings are higher than those of most regular-season NBA games.
For the past three seasons, the NBA schedule has had each team playing almost every other team four times. Thankfully, this will be changed next season, when each team will play 60 games within its conference, but for now, traditional rivalries are meaningless. There is no drama, no continuity, nothing for the fan to get up for, as he did in the days when Russell and Chamberlain, or West and Robertson, would go at each other some 10 times a season. The NBA is just a series of one-night stands strung out across the country, imposing on the players a travel burden that the average fan cannot possibly imagine, and giving weight to the notion that nothing counts until the playoffs, for which, ridiculously, 12 of the 22 teams qualify. With the average NBA ticket costing nearly $7, the fan often waits to buy tickets for these more meaningful postseason games.
"With all the hype the playoffs receive as the second season," says Philadelphia's Julius Erving, "it seems to belittle the regular season. To ask people to spend $36 for a night at the Sixers [the price of four of the best tickets], that's a tough act to sell in a working-class town."
The average annual salary of an NBA "worker" is now around $148,000. Every team has at least one supersalaried star and a good number of fans—and ex-fans—who firmly believe that the star cares more about pulling down 400 grand than a couple of extra rebounds. Maybe the long-term contract, free agentry and big money have enabled the dollar-wise pro basketball player to contemplate retirement to an island villa at age 33, but they have also brought him a serious image problem.
It is agreed that today's players are better than ever. They are so good, in fact, that many believe they're too good for the game. When the NBA began in 1946, no team made more than 30% of its shots. Today, two teams are shooting better than 51%, the NBA record, and the league-wide percentage is .484.
Athletes in all team sports are finding themselves more accountable to fans today, because their salaries are routinely reported along with their batting averages and rushing yardages. Add the fact that almost 75% of the players in the NBA are black—while more than 75% of the fans are white—and the issue of race as a contributing factor to the league's troubles cannot be simply dismissed with whispers and off-the-record comments.
"It is a fact that white people in general look disfavorably upon blacks who are making astronomical amounts of money if it appears they are not working hard for that money," says Seattle's Paul Silas, a black who is president of the NBA Players Association. "Our players have become so good that it appears they're doing things too easily, that they don't have the intensity they once had."
Some people are obviously turned off by the NBA for racial reasons, others may couch their rationale in more palatable—but essentially the same—terms. "A lot of people use the word 'undisciplined' to describe the NBA," says Al Attles, the black coach of the Golden State Warriors. "I think that word is pointed at a group more than at a sport. What do they mean by it? On the court? Off the court? What kind of clothes a guy wears? How he talks? How he plays? I think that's a cop-out."
O'Brien agrees that the NBA has an image problem, but he feels that it is mostly a result of poor promotion. Next year the league will spend $500,000, quadruple its current public-relations budget, to hire an outside agency to pump up its image. But the fact that the league is resorting to improving its image indicates dissatisfaction with the current product. The league also will conduct a national survey to find out just what areas need the most fixing. Says O'Brien, "I would be immensely disappointed and surprised if our survey showed race to be a problem."
O'Brien could start the survey with a few phone calls to those in the NBA's inner circle. A top executive from one of the league's charter teams said last week that the gravest problem might be that "the teams are too black." When it was suggested that black domination seemed to be a fact of life, and that the league has no choice but to turn it into something positive, to promote it, he replied, "The question is are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?"
"This is something we must no longer whisper about," says Denver's Scheer. "It's definitely a problem and we, the owners, created it. People see our players as being overpaid and underworked, and the majority of them are black. What can we do about it? Just try to get people who will work hard, and I don't think we'll have a problem."
Phoenix is the only NBA team with more whites than blacks. (It is also the NBA city with the lowest percentage of blacks in its population.) Nonetheless. General Manager Jerry Colangelo insists that this is merely an accident. "We look for good people," he says. "A player's race has nothing to do with anything. As far as our fan support goes, I honestly believe that if we had 10 black players and won, we would do just as well. When you're winning, fans forget skin color, salaries, everything. Winning solves all problems."
For the record, Phoenix is winning, but is marginally down in attendance. Around the NBA, "good people" is often a euphemism for white players who won't cause problems. Most coaches want a "good person" to fill the seats at the ends of their benches. Denver has John Kuester and Kim Hughes. Detroit has Ben Poquette. Indiana has Steve Green. Kansas City has Gus Gerard. San Diego has John Olive. New York has John Rudd. These players are lucky to be white.
As compared with today's figure of 75%, 10 years ago the NBA was 60% black. Seven of the top 20 scorers were white—now only two of the 20 are. In the intervening years, as the percentage of blacks steadily increased, the NBA has more and more reflected varying elements of American black culture. "You always hear basketball referred to as the 'city game' or the 'ghetto game,' " says Phoenix' Paul Westphal. "That's never rung true to me. Not just because I'm white, but because there are a lot of black players in this league who are not from ghettos or inner cities at all."
That's true, but "playground basketball" caught on just about the time that the Knicks and Celtics, who played vigorously patterned basketball, stopped winning their championships. Television billed games as "Dr. J vs. Rick Barry!" or "David Thompson vs. Pistol Pete!" It focused attention on spectacular slam dunks, the epitome of playground ball, running replay after replay of them and eschewing explanations of the intricacies of team play. Halftimes were devoted to slamdunk or Horse contests.
This year the NBA persuaded CBS to junk the "circus act" halftimes and replace them with human-interest features on players. And next month the network may drop the regionalization concept and air a single game nationwide each Sunday afternoon.
"This is still a team game," says Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens. "Unfortunately, we don't always show it that way. People want to see one guy score 30 points and make a great slam dunk. But that is not the game."
The trouble is that many young NBA players, and more who will enter the league, see it that way. Says West, "Players today are bigger, faster, quicker, better...and dumber." Says Attles, "Players today have more talent than when I came into the league in 1960. But not as many study and learn the game. They rely on raw talent, and expect to make a lot of money and have their own way. And you can't blame them. It's the system they came through. Remember, these are the kids who in junior high were recruited by a dozen high schools'. Today's players all want to play as a team, but too many want to be the head of that team."
The Players Association, if not Commissioner O'Brien, feels the NBA is facing a crisis. "Our immediate goal," says Silas, "is to make the fan understand that we are not sloughing off in our games. When he realizes this, we can try to change his perception of us—not just the black players, but the white ones, too. This is something we just have not talked about enough. Most of us are intelligent and hard-working. We care about our sport and our communities. The NBA has a problem and it is something that has to be brought out in the open and dealt with."