Nobody is Watching the NBA

February 13, 1979
Every national survey that has crossed Larry O'Brien's desk since he was named commissioner of the National Basketball Association almost four years ago has arrived at the same conclusion: Basketball is the favorite sport among this country's 18-to-35 age group.

"The fans are out there, no question about it," said O'Brien. "I don't believe the figures are lying to us."

He also is very much aware of another group of figures, pinpointing two distrubing trends in the NBA this season: Attendance is down by more than 2 percent and television ratings, never strong to begin with, are off a whopping 27 percent.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "We aren't panicking or pushing the bail-out button. But we shouldn't be going backwards. We should be progressing. We should be tapping that fan pool. 

"Why aren't we? I wish I had the answer."

On one hand, the NBA appears to be in solid shape. Only one franchise, Indiana, has serious financial troubles. There is no talk of shifts or bankruptcies. And interest in nonleague cities is so strong that two more teams will be added within two years.

Yet many within the game see trouble ahead, as reflected by the attendance and TV rating drag. The so-called "sport of the '70s" is treading water while its two biggest rivals for the professional sports dollar, baseball and football, are coasting along at an unprecedented level of popularity.

Are the NBA's problems just part of an expected revolving cycle of interest, as Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry believes?

Or is the game in for a difficult future, filled more with disappointments than success unless changes are made, as former Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn suggests?

"We've got a great sport," said Joe Axelson, Kansas City Kings president, "but there are some things that worry me. At our best, I don't think anyone can top us for entertainment and excitement. But we aren't always working as a united body. There still isn't the kind of cooperation we need.

"No one should get the wrong impression. This is a healthy sport. Some things just aren't working out quite like we anticipated."

Two seasons ago, when the American Basketball Association merged with the NBA, interest skyrocketed. For the first time, attendance surged over the 10 million figure and TV ratings reached a peak. Fans flocked to see if Julius Erving and friends were for real.

The league, however, has not been able to build on that momentum. As soon as the Erving mystique evaporated, some of the association's glaring problems returned from temporary hibernation.

"If the league isn't concerned about what is going on," said one network executive, "they aren't too smart. All they have to do is look at the comparative ratings. That's enough to blow your mind."

The NBA game of the week is drawing a 5.8 audience share this season, compared to 7.9 last year. But just as disturbing is the league's matchup against other weekend sports competition: pro bowling 9.1, SportsWorld (8.0), International Boxing (12.6), Superstars (9.6) and Wide World of Sports (16.8).

A typical National Football League game draws a 14 rating but it goes head to head with a league game on another network. Sunday college basketball games last year did slightly better than their NBA counterparts.

CBS has invested $74 million in the NBA through a four-year contract, which expires in 1982. O'Brien already has said he'd like even more money the next time (the network turned down the NBA's $88 million request this time). But for now, the league is a bad television investment.

"It's dull," said a rival network source. "That's why we wouldn't touch it. But it isn't the only sport having problems. Baseball isn't exactly burning up the ratings either."

CBS, which suffered a 22 percent dropoff in viewership during last last year's playoffs, still is committed to regional games on Sunday. Many within the league feel a showcase national game every week would be smarter. And yet, as Bullet Coach Dick Motta put it: "How many times do you want to see Dr. J. ?"

Erving has little to do with the attendance reduction. Take away the huge crowed increases at Seattle, Detroit and Kansas City (the first two in part because of new domed stadiums) and the 2 percent decrease gets even worse. Even the Bullets, who should be riding a wave of success from last year's title, are just barely ahead of last season's attendance pace.

Theories as to why the NBA is in trouble are as varied as the people associated with the game. But the most prominent reasons mentioned include:

Three major markets -- New York, Boston and Chicago -- have poor teams. Improvement by the three, especially the Knicks, would change the attendence picture and television ratings immediately. And of the 15 best television markets, the NBA does not have franchises in four: Pittsburgh, Dallas, Miami and St. Louis. In contrast, the NFL has teams in all four cities.

Some players lack prolonged enthusiasm over the 82-game regularseason haul, especially when compared to the college game on the other channel every Sunday. One writer recently was talking about the league's top hustlers and couldn't name more than five who were willing to dive after loose balls. "As soon as the game is over, they forget it," said one NBA official. "There is excitement in the air when you watch a college game. But the NBA is lucky to have two teams trying at the same time."

Huge salaries and constant complaining from athletes over contracts have soured fans. "How can a fan," said one former player, "sympathize with someone making $125,000? Here the fan is busting his tail trying to make ends meet on $25,000 and the player wants to be traded because he can't get a raise to $150,000." But the players say it is not fair to point the finger at them. The owners offered the chance for them to get high salaries, so why shouldn't they have pursued the money? "People may not realize this, but the NBA is a business to us," said Bullet guard Tom Henderson. "My teammates also are business associates."

There are no new Erving-like superstars in the league to lure fans. "And except for Larry Bird(Indiana State's All-America), I don't see any on the horizon," said Motta. "There are no new dominating centers, no super shooters. We've had the same cast for a while and fans are getting used to them."

The predominance and numbers of black players in the league has been responsible for a backlash. "You don't notice it when teams are winning," said Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the NBA Players Association, "but it is there on losing teams. The players realize it and they are concerned about it." Ferry, however, feels that race "represents an excuse for the nonfan to turn off the television set. I'm aware that people keep count but the bottom line is winning. That's how we make money and I keep my job. I am color blind when it comes to evaluating and signing talent."

Veteran coaches and executives feel that O'Brien's campaign to eliminate even the threat of fights during games has reduced aggressiveness drastically and in the process, quelled excitement.

Toss in the increased use of zone defenses and Heinsohn feels the result is "a stagnant league. The zone defense has stifled creative basketball and creative passers like Ernie DeGregorio." He blames the upper echelon of the NBA, which "doesn't include any basketball people. None of the club owners is a basketball person, either. What the coaches say or want never reaches the top." Complained another executive: "O'Brien has increased his staff and done a decent job making this league more professional. But no one in that office knows basketball. Why not hire a former coach or player? I'm not saying basketball people would encourage fighting. But why should anyone go after a loose ball now or get aggressive under the boards? Step out of line a bit and it's a stiff fine. It rewards the lazy player and stereotypes the game."

The 82-game, six-month schedule is much too long, creating undo fatigue among players and too many unimportant games. With 12 of the 22 clubs qualifying for the playoffs, too much emphasis is placed on postseason play.

Things could get worse before they are better in the league. The players' collective-bargaining agreement expires this season. And down the road are new compensation rules, which state that the club losing a player does not receive anything in return, although it does have the right to match a new team's contract offer.

"I'm scared of that rule," said Kansas City's Axelson, "although people far wiser than I say we can live with it. But I can see the rich teams buying up players right and left and the rest of us not being able to do anything about it.

"I would have loved to have Truck Robinson, for example, but I couldn't afford him. Phoenix could. I can see that happening more and more.

"We are concerned about $100,000. But to someone like Gulf and Western (owner of the Knicks), what is that to them? The only thing that might save us is the fact we need only four or five players to make a winner, not a whole bunch like football and baseball."

Fleisher, who helped negotiate the compensation agreement, says all forecasts of doom are "pure nonsense."

"First of all, the free-agent picture revitalized baseball," he said. "People are talking about that all the time now. And secondly, only 18 or 19 players have switched teams in the NBA since the free agents came into being and there have been about 150 or more player moves in that same span.

"The Knicks showed this year you can't always buy a winning team. They have $6 million tied up in new talent and look at them. The NBA should be worried about a lot more than compensation. They've got some major problems."

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