Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)
ESPN the Magazine, you may have read, loves the way the Spurs do business. From ownership to coaching to the way players perform and relate to fans, the Spurs are almost peerless among franchises in the four major professional sports, senior writer Peter Keating says.
Keating is the creator of the Ultimate Standings, a fan-based tool that measures how well 122 franchises give back to their fans. Since the standings began in 2003, the Spurs have made the Top 10 every year and twice – in 2004 and 2006 – finished first, an unmatched feat.
"The Spurs know what fans want," Keating says, "and they have delivered more consistently than any other team in North America."
The Ultimate Standings are compiled largely from feedback in an ESPN.com poll. Nearly 60,000 fans this year responded to survey questions on ownership, afforability of tickets, stadium experience, coaching, players, fan relations and championship expectations. An eighth category – Bang For the Buck – analyzed how efficiently teams converted money spent by fans into victories on the field. A second survey of fans determined how much weight ESPN gave to each category.
The New Orleans Saints finished atop this year’s Ultimate Standings. The Spurs ranked seventh overall and second behind Orlando among NBA teams. The Spurs scored best in ownership (second), coaching (third), fan relations (third) and player effort on the field and likability off it (fourth) – the four pillars of the Tim Duncan era. Over the years, the Spurs have finished atop one of those categories 12 times.
"I think the standings are a reflection of our ownership," says Rick Pych, Spurs president of business operations. "We’ve not only been able to win, we’ve been able to win the right way with the right type of players."
In particular, ESPN cited the Spurs for the way they connect with fans. From the ESPN.com Insider: "In December, nine-year vet Tony Parker surprised a class of fifth-graders that had won his essay contest by taking them to his house to shoot around in the gym. Ten days later, second-year sensation George Hill donned a Santa hat and treated five teens from the Candlewood Boys and Girls Club to a Best Buy shopping spree ($300 each)."
Anecdotes of Spurs’ goodwill do not surprise Keating, who has been gathering examples for nearly a decade. What makes him marvel is the consistency and thoroughness of that goodwill. He recalls, for example, the time Bruce Bowen turned a project from a class at UTSA into a fitness program that rewards thousands of students in San Antonio schools for making sound choices in health and nutrition.
"This happens with the Spurs every season," Keating says. "Between the players, coaches and cheerleaders, they make 1,200 community appearances a year. That’s a lot of work in a small market and it goes right to fan relations."
Keating expected fans to care most about championships. But Keating says a scientific poll showed they cared most about players who acted professionally on and off the field. In this category, the Spurs tied the Detroit Red Wings for first among all professional teams. Secondly, fans cared about players who gave their best effort. In this category, the Spurs led the NBA.
That shouldn’t surprise. The Spurs are low drama. Players are so low key they shun limelight opportunities. Take one game against the Minnesota Timberwolves last December. Manu Ginobili left the court in the fourth period one rebound shy of a triple-double. Asked if he’d like to return for a chance at a career first, Ginobili declined. The team had a comfortable lead. Other guys needed minutes. Why bother?
That’s one picture fans remember. There are others and many are snapped in the community. At schools. At gymnasiums. At centers for underprivileged youth. "The Spurs," Keating says, “act professionally on and off the court. They don’t get in trouble."
After the Spurs won their fourth NBA championship in 2007, Sports Illustrated christened them, "The Quiet Dynasty." Over the past 13 seasons, the Spurs own the best winning percentage (.695) among pro teams in the four major sports. Spurs chairman Peter Holt deserves much credit, Keating says, but remains one of the most underappreciated owners on the planet.
"It doesn’t hurt that they’ve had Tim Duncan," Keating says. "We’ve seen players as dominant as Tim, like Shaq and LeBron, but they’ve switched teams. Fans appreciate that Tim works really hard and delivers. Management has been outstanding in signing players around him that fit that bill."
Pych agrees. He credits Coach Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford for creating a culture of winning with character. "What you see in the ESPN poll is not necessarily a result of what happened in that year," Pych says. "It’s a reputation that was built over time."
Time has made an impression on Keating. Every year that he gathers data and analyzes the findings, the Spurs and Los Angeles Angels emerge near the top. But only the Spurs have finished No. 1 twice. “I just run the numbers and write what they say,” says Keating, who lives in New Jersey. “I grew up a Knicks fan, and I’ll always be a Knicks fan. But this project over the years has made me a Spurs fan. It’s made me admire how they put the team together.”
Keating admits to more than professional admiration. “I root for them now,” he says.
That’s one Insider nugget you won’t find in the Ultimate Standings. Here’s another: When the Spurs visited the Knicks in February 2009, Keatiing took his 7-year-old daughter to the game. He remembers Nate Robinson going crazy for the Knicks, and he remembers his daughter’s telling observation about the visitors. “Daddy,” she said, “we gotta stop No. 21.”