The NBA has flourished into one of the biggest sporting leagues in the world over the last 20 years, through the Jordan era, and now out into the time of the ‘Superteams’. Since the late 90s, when Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando to join Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, star players have been leaving small market teams to join fellow stars on the big name teams. It wasn’t such a big deal back when Shaq left Disneyworld for the Hollywood lights, but as the number of stars deserting is increasing at an alarming rate, one is left to wonder whether the NBA is really as healthy as it seems.
In what was once a league where the common practice was to stay with the same team for your whole career, it is almost the norm nowadays to play for numerous teams. As players are now more focused to win a championship than ever before, players are willing to push the boundaries and force franchises into trading them, usually where they want to go. In recent seasons, the Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard trade rumours that surrounded them for months on end caused their teams to underperform under the heavy media attention received by the obstinate superstars. While the franchises shouldn’t complain about the media coverage because they receive very little national press normally, even they know they will slip off the radar completely once their star exits town.
Once a star leaves a small market like Orlando, a franchise like the Magic will disappear into obscurity,
either being perennially stuck with an okay roster just finishing outside the playoffs year in and year out, like the Houston Rockets since the end of the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming era, or forever mired at the bottom of the standings. Until they land another top prospect in the draft, they can’t offer anything that would lure a star to the franchise, usually being in a small city, with a larger franchise in another sport also being in town, stealing fans. Mediocrity also doesn’t get fans into the stadiums and this was clearly evident towards the end of the Nets tenure in New Jersey averaging a mediocre 13,961 per home game in 2011-12 after several losing seasons.
What have franchises like the Bobcats got to offer a superstar over franchises like the Lakers? A history of success? Great weather and a thriving city? A solid roster that can mould around a superstar? The Bobcats aren’t even the most popular basketball team in town, let alone sports team. While these small market teams struggle to attract crowds and produce enough revenue to get out of the red, the stars lap it up in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Team loyalty is not what it once was in any sport, but at least NBA stars are willing to team together for less money, rather than more, something the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) failed to see happening.
After all the talk of the NBA owners making it harder for players to trade and move around in Free Agency by reducing the money and contract length a team could offer, players seem more determined than ever to team together to win championships together. After the original ‘Big 3’ assembled by the Boston Celtics in 2007, we have seen the Heat, the Knicks, the Nets and now the Lakers assemble corresponding ‘Superteams’ in the largest cities in the US. As lucky as some teams have been with drafting ‘Big 3’s’ in San Antonio and Oklahoma City, it is highly unlikely that the Magic and the Hornets will be as lucky in their drafting as the Spurs and Thunder.
As unethical as the ‘Superteams’ are in terms of old fashioned sporting ideologies, they have been the popularity boost that the NBA needed after the lockout of 2011. Whilst the NBA has had its lowest overall average attendance in years at 17,274, even being surpassed by the NHL at 17,455, the sport has never been more popular as a television spectacle, garnering huge markets in China thanks to Jeremy Lin and Australia due to Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills as well as in the US. The 2012 NBA Finals pulled the same amount of viewers in 5 games as the 2011 NBA finals did in 6 games. Merchandise sales are at an all-time high and you can’t walk down the street in Downtown LA to the outer suburbs in Melbourne without seeing an NBA jersey or snapback. With competitive teams in the 4 of the 5 biggest cities in the US, the NBA will only keep to grow in popularity as the ‘Superteams’ form rivalries akin to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 80’s.
Can league commissioner David Stern consider the league to be healthy having 5 or 6 teams challenge for the championship every year and the rest struggling financially and merely making up numbers? If Stern is happy with having 25 teams constantly struggle to fill stadiums, he will lose the most loyal fans from the small markets to the other major league sports.
The NHL provides a similar product in game length and is played at the same time of year. The casual fan interested in the ‘Superteams’ now, will not stick around. The will be “band wagoning” if you will, until the era ends and they move on, leaving the league with very little base to work off. The salary cap was a great advent to keep parity in the league, but more is needed now to ensure the future and sustainability of the league beyond the ‘Superteam’ era.