Posted Sep 7 2011 11:14AM
There are big market NBA teams. And then there's Goliath, also known as the Knicks, a recession-proof elephant with a coat of armor that cannot be punctured, even by the Knicks themselves.
If you have a few hundred million bucks or even a billion stashed between the sofa cushions, and you're dying to get into the professional sports business, there are three teams worth buying if they were on the market.
One: The Yankees. Duh. The cash cow that produces liquid gold. They waste more payroll money than the Kansas City Royals are worth, and still come out well ahead on the bottom line. That's due to their steep and rich baseball tradition (you can't put a price on the allure of the Babe and DiMaggio), TV and radio packages in excess of $1 billion, merchandise sold globally, a starry roster and the fact that every now and then, they win a World Series.
Two: The Cowboys. America's Team for a reason. They play in a stadium big enough to fit owner Jerry Jones' ego, and it's still not spacious enough to squeeze in all the Cowboys addicts, who are spread far and wide in this country and must have their annual fix.
Which brings us to three: The Knicks, who aren't as universally beloved or loathed -- or respected -- as the other two. But they're a behemoth nonetheless.
Their profits aren't public knowledge but everyone knows the obvious, that the Knicks are the NBA's best commodity. They are the extreme, a team that can't possibly bleed money no matter how hard they try (and they have in the past). As the NBA lockout lurches forward, they are Exhibit A of "the haves" in the NBA, a team that can survive any hazard: bad economy, labor strife, Stephon Marbury.
If half the teams in the NBA enjoyed the exclusive benefits of the Knicks, there would be no labor struggle. Right now, Adam Silver and David Stern would be having a four-course meal at the Four Seasons with Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter, counting their blessings and dropping $1,000 tips.
The reality, though, is there's an ocean of profits between the Knicks and the Hornets, two teams teetering on opposite ends. One team desperately needs revenue sharing to cope with the next wave of economic uncertainty and perhaps to attract a buyer. The other was giving $10 million to Eddy Curry and hardly sweating it.
Such is the fix the NBA finds itself in, with teams (Knicks, Lakers, Bulls) who luxuriate in the advantages (read: local TV money) that others (Bobcats, Grizzlies, Kings) can only dream about. Sure, there are large market-small market exceptions; the Thunder seem to be doing OK, although you wonder how life might be if they didn't have two of the game's top 20 players.
The truth is, the NBA's structure is broken, perhaps for good. The risk of polarization among the big and small markets runs high. The top free agents rarely sign for reasons other than money, and only a handful of teams can afford the big-ticket superstars unless they're lucky enough (like the Thunder) to draft and hold onto them. It's hard to imagine the Pacers, even if they manage their cap well, competing with the Knicks in free agency.
One way or another, the NBA must find an agreeable solution to shorten the financial rope that stretches between teams of privilege and those who are clipping coupons.
But back to the Knicks. They're one of the few franchises that don't suffer at the gate when things are going bad. In the Lost Decade (most of the 2000s) they failed to win a playoff game in the final nine years, crashed hard in the general manager regimes of Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas, and made dubious draft and free agent decisions.
And they still sold out 90-plus percent of their games, at some of the highest ticket prices in basketball.
The team is part of the Cablevision empire, meaning the Knicks own their TV station and reap all of the profits. This allowed the Knicks to absorb the cost when payroll was in the range of $100 million or more a season. They seemed to laugh at the luxury tax. They even bid $40 million beyond the next highest possible offer that Allan Houston, a good but not Hall of Fame guard, could have possibly fetched on the market, keeping him for the princely sum of $100 million. Plus, they essentially ate contracts of coaches (Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson) and players (Marbury, Curry, Jerome James, Steve Francis) without getting indigestion.
Whether they're managed poorly or not on the court, there's no stopping the Knicks from enjoying the built-in benefits of being the only team in New York City (until the Nets move to Brooklyn), supported by extremely wealthy basketball fans willing to pay for the status and sometimes good basketball that comes with being a season ticket holder at the Garden.
And so, as they oversee a major renovation of the Garden and a roster that looks a lot more promising than before, the Knicks don't appear ready to relinquish their buoyant view from the top of the NBA heap anytime soon. That's good news for James Dolan, obviously.
But is grabbing a slice of the pie that big all that good for Dolan's fellow owners? Is it good for the NBA?
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