Thursday, June 23, 2005

Balled Out

A new champion of the National Basketball Association will be crowned after tonight's deciding game 7 between the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs. According to longtime basketball guru Bob Ryan in today's Boston Globe, the level of play in this year's finals has been pretty high in contrast to the 79-76 sludge matches of recent years.

I'll have to take Bob at his word. With tip off for each of the games at 9pm, I haven't been able to watch a one. An NBA finals game seven is a rare treat, as Ryan notes in his article. Tonight will be only the third time in the last three decades that the finals have gone the limit, due largely to the ludicrous 2-3-2 home and away format the NBA went to in 1984. But, I wouldn't stay up past midnight if my hometown Celtics were playing, much less Detroit and San Antonio. Those of us who work for a living, actually need to be conscious at 9am tomorrow morning. The scheduling and format of the finals, though, are just two of a long list of gripes I have with a league that treats its fans like 24-hour ATMs.

Last week, after the ratings for the first few games of the finals were in and the guys in charge of selling network ad time were jumping out windows, NPR's On Point did a show on the state of the NBA. They had all sorts of pundits: Ryan from the Globe, Jack McCallum from Sports Illustrated. Couple other guys. They talked mostly about the lack of compelling personalities in the NBA since the exit of Magic, Michael and Larry, and how it was killing the league. Because teams are smaller and the players are less anonymous (as opposed to football players covered in body armor) the NBA depends on individuals who appeal to the leagues (mostly white) fans. They called it the "cornrows and tattoos" problem.

The pundits also talked about the quality of the game (or lack thereof) in recent years. They lamented the dreary clutch and grabfests in which coaches seem more comfortable when the other guys have the ball. But things were getting better, they said. Look at the run and gun Phoenix Suns. Look at the Mavericks and the Celtics and their emphasis on fast break basketball. Heck, the Pistons even broke 100 in finals game three (look out Doug Moe!).

Style of play is certainly more important to me than player personalities. I think that's true for most real fans. Would you not want Allen Iverson on your team because of the way he wears his hair? It's idiotic.

The biggest issues for me as a paying customer, though, are that I'm sick of being squeezed for every last dollar and I'm sick of being disrespected.

Take my beloved Celtics. Unlike the Patriots, who televise most of their games on free TV, or even the Red Sox, who are on the local UHF affiliate at least once a week, almost all of the Celtics' games are only on cable. Growing up, I learned to love the Celts by watching their battles with the 76ers on the local NBC affiliate in the early 1980s. Now the team is on a network maybe once or twice a year. If you don't want to shell out $60 a month for cable, too bad. You'll just have to visualize that Paul Pierce buzzer beater as you listen to the game through the static of AM radio. Does the league really want to put its product in front of fewer consumers?

I get to a few games every year. To their credit, the Celtics offer $10 seats in the Brooks Family Section. Of course, these seats are in the top three rows of the building behind the baskets (which tells you all you need to know about how much the Celtics value families). Buy them online, though, and the price goes up to about $15 per ticket (lots of overhead involved in pointing and clicking guys?). This year, the Celts are raising the price for many of these tickets by about 50%. Want to actually SEE the players? Get ready to shell out at least $110 for a pair of tickets. Maybe it's your birthday and you'd like to sit courtside. Try $1,400 for a pair. All to watch a team that won 45 games and didn't show up in the playoffs.

Ah yes, the playoffs, the time of year that the league flips the bird to all the saps who bought tickets for the meaningless regular season. In an imitation of hockey's absurd playoff system (and just look at where it got the NHL!), the NBA admits nearly half its franchises to postseason play. Maybe three or four of these sixteen teams have a legitimate shot at a championship. But the league slogs through two months of playoffs in order to fleece delusional fans in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Denver and, sadly, even Boston, who pack stadiums and pay even higher ticket prices to see their team get booted, usually by a team that will also get sacked in a round or two.

All of this culminates in the ultimate insult to injury: the NBA finals. Finally, some meaningful games! And on broadcast telly! Unless you're one of the 100 million or so folks who live on the east coast and need to get some sleep. But hey, as long as it works for the advertisers, who cares? Chances are the NBA already got your money during the meaningless season and first couple rounds of the playoffs.

"It's a free market," NBA players, owners and league officials would undoubtedly say. Of course, the owners and the league are organized to maximize their revenues and franchise values. The players are organized to get their 57% of the pie. Why are they organized? Because they understand that in a truly free market, individual players and franchises will make decisions that screw players and teams collectively. That's why they have a salary cap, for example.

Like most consumers, though, fans don't really have any kind organization looking out for THEIR interests. There was no fan representative at the table during the recent bargaining sessions on the new NBA labor agreement to say to player rep Billy Hunter, "Hey Billy! Shaq's making almost $30M this year. Think he could take $20M so that some poor schlump in Miami can watch the Heat on TV with his kid? Think he could live on $10M so the schlump and kid could actually attend a game for under $200?" And no one was there to say to the owners "If Shaq takes that pay cut, we better see it in our ticket prices, or your guys will be playing in front of the arena maintenance guy come November."

Instead, fans make their decisions individually. "Yeah, I know I'm getting screwed," one will say to him-or-herself. "But I like basketball, I grew up watching the Celtics and anyway, I'm just one fan. There's nothing I can do. I'll just pay up."

And so it goes. In the "free market."


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