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Shaun Powell

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When contraction talks surface, somehow the Hornets always seem to be in the midst of them.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Battle of the bulge: Are 30 NBA teams too many?


Posted Aug 23 2011 9:39AM

Here in 2011, where money is tighter than Shaq in a Celtics' jersey, when you hear "contraction" you think of the next item to get whacked from your shrinking household budget. After all, you have bigger problems to think about than the New Orleans Hornets.

But contraction is once again a buzzword in the locked-out NBA, where David Stern recently raised the issue of trimming the fat from a league that (according to the owners) is losing more money than Charles Barkley on the golf course.

And when That Word is buzzing, the Hornets are always around.

Stern has said that he has fielded several inquiries from people interested in buying the Hornets, a financially troubled team that is now owned by the league and its owners. Still, New Orleans remains in the middle of the action when it comes to contraction talk.

The NBA has 30 teams, some of which are making money and some (according to the league, as many as 22) that aren't. The billion-dollar question, then, is what to do with the have-nots -- the teams that can't seem to generate enough revenue and probably won't any time in the near future.

Contraction is not just a financial issue. There's also an issue of the quality of basketball as well, because the perception (real or imagined) is that the league, at 30 teams, is watered down and simply doesn't have enough superstars to go around.

As we wait to see whether Stern and the owners are really serious about scaling back the number of teams, there's one question that must be asked: How did we arrive at the point where a league that thrived from expansion just 15 years ago is now hurting because of it?

Here's what happened:

The decision to expand: The NBA did what plenty of people were guilty of doing during the fat financial days: Everybody over-reached. Rather than stick with 24 teams or even 26, the NBA swelled quickly and settled on 30.

The NBA wasn't the only league guilty of gluttony. In the '90s, Major League Baseball teams sprouted in Arizona and Florida, former spring-training-only sites, and in Colorado. The National Hockey League expanded wildly during the '90s. The National Football League expanded to Jacksonville, Fla., and to Charlotte, N.C.

And every league had existing teams move around. The NHL saw a lot of that, including the Hartford Whalers moving to Raleigh, N.C. -- Raleigh! -- where they became the Carolina Hurricanes. (The Hurricanes, to be fair, did win the Stanley Cup in 2006.) Just this summer, the NHL's Thrashers bolted from Atlanta, relocating to Winnipeg, where they assumed the names of the old Winnipeg franchise, the Jets. (The original Jets left Canada in 1996, setting up camp in Phoenix as the Coyotes).

Baseball's Montreal Expos relocated in 2004 to Washington D.C. (where they're now the Nationals). And back in the '90s, the NFL lost two teams in Los Angeles (the Raiders and Rams) to Oakland and St. Louis. The league badly wants a team back in L.A., and the latest word is that the San Diego or Oakland franchises will fill that opening. Eventually.

The lesson is this: Not every city deserves a pro sports franchise. Medium-sized markets and small markets sometimes are thrust into the big-time, and some just aren't prepared to deal with it. Sometimes not even the big markets are ready.

Some iffy decisions back then look even iffier now, because of another event:

Sour economy: In good times, companies hire, executives live large and disposable income flows. In bad times, everything shuts down. The corporate dollars, the lifeblood of pro sports, begin to dry up, and so does advertising. Season-ticket holders are pressed to make a choice: Go to a game, or feed the family.

Before, teams could raise ticket prices without much of a backlash. Not now. Meanwhile, the price of talent continues to soar. Superstars making $20 million in the NBA were unheard of two decades ago. Now it's the norm.

So revenues get smaller, payrolls either stay constant or rise ... if it weren't for national TV contracts, the smaller markets would really suffer.

That's why owners are taking a hard-line approach to negotiations. Times have changed. And not for the better.

There's one more issue that's largely been ignored:

Star search: In the 1970s and '80s, when the league was roughly 25 teams deep, there seemed to be enough stars to go around. That was helped in part by the ABA merger in 1976; only four ABA teams -- the Spurs, Nets, Pacers and Nuggets -- were absorbed into the NBA. Those players made the league much stronger and more fun to watch.

At least a half-dozen teams in the new league had at least two players who were future (or borderline) Hall of Famers. The Lakers, Celtics and Sixers practically had rotisserie teams. The Celtics had a front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, three members of the NBA's 50th anniversary team.

Will we ever see that again? Probably not.

The NBA added franchises in Dallas (1980), then Miami ('88), Charlotte ('88), Orlando ('89), and Minnesota ('89), then two in Canada ('95), and later put another team in Charlotte (2004) after the Hornets fled to New Orleans ('02). Suddenly, there was a demand for talent.

But what about the supply?

The NBA tapped into the European market. That has helped some. Yao Ming's presence was supposed to open the league to an influx of Chinese talent, but that hasn't happened. At least not yet.

American players, meanwhile, were suddenly being cited for their lack of basic skills, namely shooting. It didn't help when teams began to lavish one-dimensional players with huge contracts.

So without enough stars to help sell tickets, attendance suffered in Sacramento, Minnesota, Charlotte and a number of other places -- although poor management certainly played a role as well. New Jersey couldn't sell out the building during its two trips to The Finals in 2002 and '03.

A perfect storm of expansion, economic turmoil and a lack of true stars has led us here with all this talk of contraction. But that begs another question or three: Would contraction solve anything? Would the quality of play really be drastically better? Wouldn't there still be poorer-performing teams at the gate and on the court?

You probably know the answer. And that's why contraction hasn't advanced beyond its current stage: talk.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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