By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
November 2, 2012
As the National Basketball League prepares for the season’s first full slate of weekend games, the league hopes to build on one of its most successful years to date.
Amid doomsday scenarios and a lockout-shortened season, the NBA last year posted banner numbers across the board. On TV, ABC averaged 5.4 million viewers for its 15 telecasts, the net’s best regular-season average since ESPN acquired rights in 2002. The league-owned NBA TV posted its own record ratings, a 33% increase over last year’s numbers. In the stands, 18 of the league’s 30 teams saw attendance increase or remain steady year-over-year, while nine teams averaged crowds of 100% of capacity, up from six in 2011.
Ticket sales this year are off to a hot start as well. The league has sold more than 50,000 new full-season tickets, and total full-season sales are expected to top the 250,000 mark, according to SportsBusiness Journal.
Now that the NBA has achieved labor peace for the foreseeable future, the three most compelling storylines this season are: the new New York paradigm, as the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets battle for the hearts and minds of the city; whether official NBA game jerseys will soon feature corporate logos; and the future direction of the league now that Commissioner David Stern has announced his retirement and a clear succession plan—including speculation over what team could end up in Seattle’s new arena.
In New York, the newly-minted Brooklyn Nets have sold nearly 11,000 full-season tickets in their Barclays Arena, triple the number they sold in New Jersey last year, and it looks like a hefty percentage of these new ticket holders have been poached from the Knicks. According to the New York Times, most of the new sales have come from Brooklyn (37%), Manhattan (23%), and Nassau County (6%). And as the paper points out, “it’s doubtful they all became basketball fans overnight.”
So far, the 18,000-seat Barclays Arena is earning rave reviews from Brooklynites and basketball fans, from its “tough and textured, anti-Manhattan” architecture to its cutting-edge technology, terrific sightlines, and signature customer service provided by a staff trained by the venerable Disney Institute. While Hurricane Sandy has postponed the first regular-season meeting of the crosstown rivals, it’s clear that “Knicks vs. Nets” has captured the city.
Brooklyn Nets fans have barely settled into their new crib and signature black team jerseys, and now they and NBA fans everywhere may have to get used to a whole bunch of new brands. The NBA is seriously considering becoming the first of North America’s four major sports leagues to put sponsors’ logos on game uniforms.
While most of the leagues have gotten comfortable with corporate logos on practice jerseys, American sports tradition and a concern over increased sponsor leverage have thus far prevented official game jerseys from becoming, as the Times put it, “a running, passing, shooting and dunking billboard.” Sponsor leverage in NASCAR brought on by the many corporate logos decorating drivers’ fire suits and cars—with some deals bringing in $15-$20 million annually—has been closely examined by the NBA, and some NASCAR drivers have opined that sponsors’ influence increases with the size of the deal.
But the bigger role model for the NBA is Europe’s football clubs, long accustomed to sponsor logos on their kits. The combined shirt sponsorship income of the English Premier League’s 20 clubs has jumped 25% to $230 million this season, a $47 million increase over last year. Even if the NBA took in only a fraction of the revenues generated by EPL shirt sponsors such as Emirates, Chevrolet, and Samsung, that has to be near irresistible to the league’s 30 owners and NBA brass.
All of these issues remain top of mind with Commissioner Stern, as he prepares to make his long goodbyes before his February 1, 2014 retirement, at which time he will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver. Stern is often credited for transforming the NBA from an also-ran league whose games were shown on late night tape delay to a $5 billion global conglomerate with games televised in 215 countries, TV revenues of nearly $1.3 billion, and an average player salary of $5 million.
By the time he attends his gold watch party, Stern will have become the longest-tenured commissioner in pro sports history, surpassing former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle by two months. Stern claims the timing of his retirement is sentimental, but don’t think for a minute Rozelle’s tenure record didn’t figure into the Commish’s thinking.
Stern demands that his players remain uber-competitive on the court. It’s inconceivable that he would be any less aggressive off of it.