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Scott Howard-Cooper

The outdoor game at Indian Wells isn't on the schedule this preseason, but is expected to return in 2012.
P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty Images

Loss of preseason games would hurt neutral-site cities

Posted Aug 25 2011 9:24AM - Updated Sep 22 2011 3:58PM

The collateral damage will probably come first. Some of it will be measured in dollars -- perhaps millions of dollars -- and some will be impossible to measure but very tangible nonetheless.

Barring the lockout being settled, the damage will start first in Fresno, Calif., and then branching across the United States and Canada. Exhibition games are scheduled to begin Oct. 9, but with neither side in the labor negotiations offering encouragement that an agreement is on its way, non-NBA cities that get a preseason game every once in a while will most likely lose the chance in 2011.

Actually, losing the chance to host may be the least of it. If the neutral-site games get caught under the wheels of the advancing labor dispute, they will almost surely be watching a financial boost fall through their hands. They would also miss an opportunity for marketing outside the region, a lesser issue than actual dollars but a consideration for some cities and arenas that want to be branded on a major-league level.

Calculating the exact blow to the economy is impossible. It depends on many factors, from ticket sales to whether most fans at the games would have been locals or tourists to how long the teams would have been in town.

Neutral-site does not automatically mean a small market relying heavily on the NBA for exposure -- big cities will feel the economic crunch as well, as places like Las Vegas, San Diego, Anaheim and Vancouver are both on the schedule again. Officials in Indian Wells, Calif., once estimated that outdoor game, which had grown into a highlight of the preseason schedule, was worth $3 million to the area in tourism every October.

The host Suns, needing to decide several months ago whether they could commit to using the tennis stadium at Indian Wells, couldn't wait to see if the lockout would be settled. They left what had become an annual stop -- a particularly enjoyable event the last two years with idyllic nighttime weather after Phoenix and Denver endured a winter carnival in 2008 -- entirely off the schedule. It is expected the event will return next preseason.

Cole Carley, president and chief executive officer of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Bucks-Timberwolves game set for Oct. 22 in Fargo, N.D., is worth $150,000 to the city for every 1,000 fans who come from out of town. The night could have easily turned into a $500,000 windfall in that calculation, thanks to spending on hotels, restaurants, transportation and perhaps that greatest of all welcome mats, tourism taxes.

While local fans have value -- money spent on concessions and parking, and the arena being used means a paycheck for a lot of workers -- the real money is in visitors.

When all goes as planned, the region gets tourism, the venue operator gets another date on the calendar (and the chance to cross-promote future arena events) and residents in some exhibition cities get a rare chance to be connected with a major-league event.

"At a time when keeping fans and generating new revenue streams is Job 1, these exhibition games have become important ingredients in that formula," said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Full-time NBA homes will get more games again, eventually, but missing out on the rare occurrences is a specific body blow to the neutral-site hosts that may have to wait several years for the next visit.

Fargo, for example, is on the schedule for the first time since 2002, and now every indication is that it won't happen this year. Among the stronger indications: The Timberwolves, the home team for the Oct. 22 contest, have yet to tell their partners in Fargo to begin ticket sales. Other teams also have held off on selling tickets to exhibition games, some at their home arenas.

The neutral-site games may be collateral damage of the lockout. But to the cities involved, it sure won't feel like it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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