Posted Aug 17 2011 9:05AM - Updated Aug 17 2011 11:26AM
It's not easy being a billionaire sports owner, you know.
Fans are more demanding and fickle than ever. Arena and TV deals are becoming more complex. And in the NBA, there's this little issue of a lockout and labor negotiation. Maybe you've heard.
And yet, that didn't prevent four teams from changing hands in the past year, because owning an NBA team is still a luxury afforded to only a lucky 30, people who instantly gain a higher profile and form a most exclusive club.
Therefore, four men of enormous wealth decided to buy in and earn the right to pay $5 million to a backup center and, if they're really lucky, $25 million a year to the next superstar. What a blessed life, huh?
We'll know a bit more about these men and the teams they purchased once the labor situation gets settled. Until then, here's what confronts the Warriors, Pistons, Sixers and Hawks:
Owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber didn't waste much time swinging the sledgehammer after assuming control last spring. They cleaned house better than Nate Thurmond cleaned glass, whacking all the top executives, which happens when a franchise goes 16 out of 17 seasons without reaching the playoffs. And every change was absolutely necessary. The Warriors were one of the worst-managed teams of the last decade, starting with former owner Chris Cohan on down.
So if nothing else, Lacob and Guber don't exactly have a hard act to follow. They played it safe by hiring Jerry West to oversee the basketball operation, then rolled the dice on Mark Jackson, who comes with no coaching experience. We'll see if this combination works the way it did when West appointed a first-timer named Pat Riley in Los Angeles.
What separates the Warriors from the other three teams that changed hands is the Warriors stayed strong at the gate in spite of the losing. Over the last four seasons, Golden State has ranked no lower than 11th in home attendance. That means they'll be a tough ticket and a potential gold mine if they ever start winning. Lacob is a hands-on, big-time basketball fan so it's hard to imagine him sitting still if the moves don't work out.
Forbes magazine recently ranked the Pistons as the 13th most valuable NBA franchise, which sounds OK until you recall when the Pistons were once lumped financially with the Lakers, Bulls and Knicks at the top. That was when the Pistons printed money and championships and were run by Bill Davidson, whose face deserves to be on the Rushmore of NBA owners.
Once "Mr. D" passed away in 2009, the Pistons became just like one of the many vacant, ghostly buildings you see in downtown Detroit. Attendance fell and so did the Pistons in the standings and in reputation. Since winning the title in 2004 and reaching The Finals in 2005, the Pistons' home attendance has fallen from No. 1 in the league to No. 18 last season. And after recording 50-plus win seasons from 2001-2008, Detroit hasn't won more than 39 games in a season since then.
Clearly, Karen Davidson wanted nothing to do with the franchise, and it showed. Best thing she did was sell to Tom Gores, a Beverly Hills billionaire with a love for all things Michigan (he went to Michigan State) and a willingness to restore the luster to a once-proud franchise.
Interestingly, Gores left Joe Dumars in charge, and now we get to see if Joe D's recent mistakes were due in part to the chaotic ownership situation prior to the sale, when his hands were tied. The hiring of Lawrence Frank to coach was a safe move, nothing more, and now the Pistons must change the makeup of the squad, starting with removing the leftover pieces from their championship team of seven years ago. Not until then will the fans return to the Palace, an address (6 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, Mich.) that deserves better basketball.
Alex Meruelo hadn't given a press conference in his life until he stepped to the podium a few weeks ago and said, "Hi y'all" to Atlanta. And it showed; Meruelo looked nervous and even choked up at times. Well, if you just paid $300 million for a team that can't pack the house, even in good times, wouldn't you be a bit sweaty? Actually, if Meruelo has any buyers' remorse, he doesn't show it. He seems thrilled to be a member of the owner's club. But there are issues, some serious, that he must tackle.
One: How can he convince Philips Arena to root for the Hawks when the Knicks, Celtics and Lakers are in town? Two: How can he convince the fans that he's not a carbon copy of the Atlanta Spirit Group, the former owners who were derided (and divided) from Day One? Three: Will he be seen as a tight wad, like the ASG (which wasn't entirely true)?
Yes, most of Meruelo's problems are image-related, and if he overcomes them, then the Hawks can enjoy a bigger presence in a town that mysteriously doesn't embrace basketball as it should.
The Ed Snider era, famously remembered for Allen Iverson, an infatuation with Larry Brown and lots of indifference from Philly fans, ended quietly this summer. Which is how Joshua Harris, a billionaire Wall Streeter, is carrying himself these days. Not much is known about the new owner except that he's rich and, unlike Snider, doesn't have Brown on speed dial. From what we know, Harris is the anti-Mark Cuban, willing to stay hidden, at least for now.
Because the Sixers are seen as an up-and-comer, nobody expected Harris to clean house, and he hasn't. Until they screw up or somebody whispers in Harris' ear, Rod Thorn and Ed Stefanski will run the show and Doug Collins will coach it. The Sixers don't have any upcoming big-money issues regarding their players, and don't figure to be in the free agent sweepstakes anytime soon, so Harris' taste for spending won't be known for a while.
Bigger question is how the Sixers can muscle their way back into the bosom of Philly, which has gravitated in droves to the Eagles and Phillies (the Geno's and Pat's of local teams), leaving the Sixers to fight it out with the Flyers for third place in the popularity pecking order. It would help if the Sixers can somehow get their version of Ryan Howard, DeSean Jackson or Cliff Lee. You know, a franchise player.
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