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Curry Kirkpatrick
December 15, 1975
Despite a ton of talent and an attractive game, the league is wasting away. Merger failing, it may well disappear
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December 15, 1975

Now The Incredible Shrinking Aba

Despite a ton of talent and an attractive game, the league is wasting away. Merger failing, it may well disappear

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Before Denver's Bobby Jones goes the way of Larry Csonka, James Schlesinger and Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell , it is necessary to point out why he is worth saving and how to go about doing it. Before the Denver Nuggets follow the Baltimore Claws, the San Diego Sails, the Utah Stars and the late and great New York City to that crowded bankruptcy court in the sky, it is mandatory to discuss why the American Basketball Association deserves to exist long past the spring thaw. To put it another way, it seems about time that all professional basketball—players, owners, commissioners, Larry Fleisher, Judge Robert L. Carter, Sonny Hill, everybody—did something to hold back the dawn.

It has been eight years since the ABA was born on a wing and a prayer and George Mikan throwing up the first red-white-and-blue ball, demanding to be taken seriously and making much of its kinship with the American Football League, which had started from scratch, too. As the AFL had done before it in respect to the NFL, the ABA proclaimed that its game was faster and more exciting than the NBA's and insisted that there was room in the U.S. for its 11 franchises. Eight years later, however, all we are guaranteed from the ABA's administrative geniuses are credibility gaps, a receivership sweepstakes and an ongoing disaster presided over by rookie Commissioner Dave DeBusschere and John Y. Brown Jr., who is president of the league and whose wife owns the Kentucky Colonels.

Though overall ABA attendance has increased every year but one, only three of the original 11 cities remain. Though more and better young players have been signed every season, established stars such as Charlie Scott and George McGinnis keep leaving the league while celebrated jump switchers such as Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham end up in the older NBA. Though some people indeed find the ABA game faster, more colorful and exciting, and the three-point basket the best new wrinkle since the dunk shot, the new league never has caught on the way it should have. And the greatest irony is that just when the ABA is offering the best basketball it has ever played and has probably reached parity on the court with the NBA, the league seems to be withering on the vine. DeBusschere, hired specifically to take his glamorous name and image around the country, pumping up interest in the league, has been unable to stem the mounting disasters.

Aside from daily sins of mismanagement and fumbling ownership—no different from many professional sports operations (or any other business), really—what has hurt the ABA from the beginning has been the lack of a revenue-producing network television contract, which is where the ABA's and early AFL history part company. Born at a time when the appetite for pro football was becoming insatiable, the AFL always had TV support, and by its sixth season had an NBC network contract with enough money in it to keep the new league solvent. But pro basketball in the 70s is not what pro football was to TV 10 years earlier. The NBA's Sunday afternoon ratings, first on ABC, then on CBS, have hardly been spectacular, and when NBC dropped its hockey telecasts this season, the network opted not for pro basketball and the ABA but for college basketball. The ratings of the college game during its March playoffs increased dramatically over the past few seasons, but the more important reason for the network's choice is that ABA demographics are sensationally unattractive to national TV advertisers; the New York Nets are in the No. 1 market, but St. Louis, the next highest team, is in No. 12. (The NBA is covered in Nos. 1 through 9.)

Television is no small matter here or anywhere else. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, says, "Forgetting the ABA for a moment, I've always questioned whether the NBA could survive without a TV contract."

The CBS-NBA package is worth $9 million a year to the older league, $500,000 going to each of the 18 teams. So the ABA could be said to be one network contract away from solvency.

Or folding. Or merger. A merger is what they think about night and day in the ABA, and not very much less in the NBA—and for exactly the same reasons that AFL and NFL owners finally saw merger as salvation. Competition has guaranteed that players' salaries and bonuses would rise right through the Superdome roof. That escalation—NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien revealed last week that the average pay in the NBA was $109,000 a year—in addition to the other rising costs of operating a pro team, has turned enough owners' heads so that the majority of them now see merger as the only way back to sanity. The Philadelphia 76ers' Irv Kosloff says, "There must be only one league, by whatever method it takes to get it done."

But at the moment merger is a topic that cannot be officially discussed under penalty of contempt of court. The ban is on so long as the case of " Oscar Robertson, et al. vs. the National Basketball Association" sits before the federal bench of the Southern District of New York. This is the suit filed by Robertson and all the NBA players in 1970 that enjoins the NBA from entering into any merger discussions until it is settled. The suit challenges the option clause, compensation rights and the college draft—all of which the players deem illegal for prohibiting them "freedom of movement." At the same time, however, they are collecting their $8 million or so a week with four months' vacation.

"Big O, et al." is scheduled to be heard in June in a jury trial before Judge Carter, whose preliminary decisions indicate a sympathy for the players' position. Indeed, the judge has advised the NBA to settle out of court, but as a body the owners have ignored all compromise proposals—including the players' "right of first refusal" suggestion, which would make it possible for a team whose employee is playing out his option to match another team's offer to him.

In the unlikely event that the owners win, a path would be clear to a merger in which a whole slew of unhappy Nat Turners would be in total bondage. On the other hand, if the players win (or if the NBA owners change their minds on a compromise), Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players Association, says they would not then stand in the way of a merger; to maintain the size of the job market, they would favor it as a matter of self-preservation.

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