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John Papanek
February 26, 1979
Attendance is slipping and the league's TV ratings have plummeted, leading to a lot of cries and whispers about the real problems
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February 26, 1979

There's An Ill Wind Blowing For The Nba

Attendance is slipping and the league's TV ratings have plummeted, leading to a lot of cries and whispers about the real problems

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Denver General Manager Carl Scheer believes that all the NBA doomsday talk "would be academic were it not for the unimaginative and inept management in New York."

But blaming the Knicks for all the NBA's troubles is illogical. Just like the NBA, the NFL took off on New York success, but pro football has done splendidly even though the Giants and Jets have had poor records and little national attention for years. And baseball did just as well in those years when the once-powerful Yankees were in eclipse.

Although CBS has been properly criticized for treating its telecasts as little more than a bridge between a refrigerator race and a golf tournament, and for further compounding its error by showing regional games rather than focusing attention on one big national game, it makes no more sense to place the bulk of the blame for the league's problems on the network than on the Knicks. Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of programming at CBS Sports, must know that he has an inferior product. In fact, he was the man who bought college basketball for NBC in 1975, and in 1976 issued charts showing that college basketball killed the NBA in households with $15,000-plus incomes, the kind of earnings that attract advertisers.

Far more realistic reasons for the league's troubles lie within the game itself. The teams play a tedious 82-game schedule that begins during the World Series and doesn't end until early April; then the playoffs begin and go on until June, when most spectators have long since wearied of watching a winter sport. The seven games of last year's championship series between Washington and Seattle stretched over 18 days—for television. Instead of reflecting the beauty and intensity of the sport, the series was about as exciting as the pro bowlers' tour, whose ratings are higher than those of most regular-season NBA games.

For the past three seasons, the NBA schedule has had each team playing almost every other team four times. Thankfully, this will be changed next season, when each team will play 60 games within its conference, but for now, traditional rivalries are meaningless. There is no drama, no continuity, nothing for the fan to get up for, as he did in the days when Russell and Chamberlain, or West and Robertson, would go at each other some 10 times a season. The NBA is just a series of one-night stands strung out across the country, imposing on the players a travel burden that the average fan cannot possibly imagine, and giving weight to the notion that nothing counts until the playoffs, for which, ridiculously, 12 of the 22 teams qualify. With the average NBA ticket costing nearly $7, the fan often waits to buy tickets for these more meaningful postseason games.

"With all the hype the playoffs receive as the second season," says Philadelphia's Julius Erving, "it seems to belittle the regular season. To ask people to spend $36 for a night at the Sixers [the price of four of the best tickets], that's a tough act to sell in a working-class town."

The average annual salary of an NBA "worker" is now around $148,000. Every team has at least one supersalaried star and a good number of fans—and ex-fans—who firmly believe that the star cares more about pulling down 400 grand than a couple of extra rebounds. Maybe the long-term contract, free agentry and big money have enabled the dollar-wise pro basketball player to contemplate retirement to an island villa at age 33, but they have also brought him a serious image problem.

It is agreed that today's players are better than ever. They are so good, in fact, that many believe they're too good for the game. When the NBA began in 1946, no team made more than 30% of its shots. Today, two teams are shooting better than 51%, the NBA record, and the league-wide percentage is .484.

Athletes in all team sports are finding themselves more accountable to fans today, because their salaries are routinely reported along with their batting averages and rushing yardages. Add the fact that almost 75% of the players in the NBA are black—while more than 75% of the fans are white—and the issue of race as a contributing factor to the league's troubles cannot be simply dismissed with whispers and off-the-record comments.

"It is a fact that white people in general look disfavorably upon blacks who are making astronomical amounts of money if it appears they are not working hard for that money," says Seattle's Paul Silas, a black who is president of the NBA Players Association. "Our players have become so good that it appears they're doing things too easily, that they don't have the intensity they once had."

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