- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

The NBA started the 2001-02 season with more than enough momentum. The Los Angeles Lakers were aiming to three-peat as champions, average ticket prices had fallen by 2.3 percent, Orlando star forward Grant Hill was returning from injury, and most important the sport's biggest star, Michael Jordan, was making his second comeback, this time with the Washington Wizards.
Anticipation in October was so high that league officials were discussing how to diffuse all the additional attention from Jordan to the game's other stars.
A little more than a quarter into the season, however, a lot is noticeably missing. Average league attendance is flat at a little more than 16,300 compared to the same point last year despite the Wizards selling out every game so far both home and away. More telling, 14 teams are behind last year's turnstile pace, six of those by a double-digit percentage. National TV ratings have not risen significantly, below face value tickets for arena upper decks are widely available in the secondary markets and no-shows are increasing.
A pending TV deal with ESPN, ABC and Turner Sports will, if completed, boost the league's national TV revenues by as much 32 percent to $815 million a year. The increase in money, coming despite a marked recession throughout the TV industry, represents a significant achievement for commissioner David Stern.
But to do that, the league will shift much of its exposure away from broadcast network TV to cable, which does not reach a full third of American TV households. The league also is increasing the number of games aired, potentially diluting its product.
More broadly, the buzz is just not what most anticipated when Jordan announced his return in late September. Call it the product of an overly long regular season schedule. Call it the result of ticket pricing plans that still skew heavily toward corporate buyers. Call it the sign of an overloaded sporting public. Whatever the tag, the NBA, even with Jordan back in the fold and playing well, has not returned to the forefront of American popular culture at least not yet.
"I've got Knicks tickets I can't give away," said Brandon Steiner, a New York state-based marketing executive. "It's not happened to me before, but it's not entirely surprising. It can be difficult to sit and watch an entire NBA game these days."
The NBA has dealt with the problem many times before, most recently in each of the past two seasons. About a year ago, the league was in a similar midseason funk. NHL average attendance had surpassed the NBA's, just as hockey has again this season. Two years ago, NBA fans were slow to return after the owners' lockout the previous season and Jordan's second retirement.
But in each case, the NBA slugged on until April with the soft economics and then recovered strong with entertaining playoffs. Two years ago, Phil Jackson's L.A. Lakers battled Larry Bird's Indiana Pacers. Last year, Philadelphia survived three scintillating postseason rounds before succumbing to the Lakers, and playoff attendance and TV ratings surged in the process.
Lightning could strike yet again, but by most accounts the league will have to recover from a much deeper hole this time. Since opening day, Hill suffered another season-ending injury; Jeff Van Gundy quit as coach of the New York Knicks; Memphis, Tenn., has not universally embraced the relocated Grizzlies; and three cities are not sure if the Charlotte Hornets should call them home.
Meanwhile, New York and Miami, two of the league's largest markets and longtime Eastern Conference powers, have both fallen out of contention, and the Nets are demanding an immediate commitment for a new arena from the New Jersey government.
"The league is in trouble. The sporting public is simply talking about other things baseball, college sports, the NFL, whatever. That all translates to sales," said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a New York sports and entertainment marketing company. "There just aren't any compelling storylines developing with the NBA."
Rebuilding the buzz and the revenues that go with it will present Stern, widely seen as pro sports' second-strongest executive behind NFL boss Paul Tagliabue, with one of his toughest challenges. But even before the season, and the troubles, started, Stern appeared ready.
"It's not going to be business as usual [this season]," Stern said. "We're going to be doing business according to the new normalcy, where a lot of things that we previously took for granted we no longer do."

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