In his elegant corner office at the Manhattan headquarters of the National Basketball Association, Commissioner Larry O'Brien leaned back in his chair and stacked his feet atop his desk. "I wouldn't say we have no problems in the NBA," he said, "but you can see from my empty desk here that there certainly is no crisis. In fact, for the first time in my four seasons as commissioner I can say that the NBA is stable. Stable is the best word that can be used to describe the NBA."
Of course, O'Brien also believes that the NBA is "exciting," that it has "the greatest athletes in the world," that, according to every survey he's seen, "basketball is the favorite sport among Americans below the age of 35," and that "the potential for our sport goes right off toward the sunset."
But "stable" definitely is his buzz word. And indeed, the league is in good shape financially; no teams are losing the kind of money they were before the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, and only New Jersey and Indiana are even slightly shaky. But stability can also imply stagnation, and that is precisely what those twin indicators of public appeal—attendance and television ratings—show. Both are disappointing, raising serious questions about the future of the sport.
Twelve of the 22 teams are drawing fewer fans than they did a year ago for the same number of playing dates. League-wide, attendance is down 3%, after 621 of 902 games. However, two of the less competitive teams wouldn't be doing nearly so well if they hadn't changed sites. The Detroit Pistons (up 56%) moved from downtown Cobo Hall to the suburban Pontiac Silverdome, and the San Diego Clippers (up 30%) moved from Buffalo. And two of the better teams are benefiting from increased capacity. In San Antonio, where 6,000 seats were added to the HemisFair, attendance is up 27%. The Seattle SuperSonics, one of the best draws in the league, moved from the 14,098-seat Coliseum to the Kingdome, which has a capacity of 27,894 for basketball, and attendance is up 45%. But winning doesn't guarantee a larger gate: attendance at Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where the world champion Washington Bullets play, is up only 3%.
However, the most alarming news is that attendance in the big four markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia is down drastically: the Knicks (11%) and Bulls (31%) are once-strong teams that have become woefully weak, but the 76ers (19%) and Lakers (11%) are bona fide championship contenders. "People I talk to around Los Angeles all tell me that there isn't a great deal of interest in either the Lakers or the NBA," says Laker Coach Jerry West.
Likewise, national television ratings are down a whopping 26%. The first four regular-season Sunday CBS telecasts were beaten soundly by everything the other networks threw at them, including Superstars and boxing ( ABC), and college basketball ( NBC).
Certainly, having weak teams in the major television markets cuts deeply into network ratings, especially when those markets are already saturated with local telecasts, and cable and satellite feeds of pro, college and high school basketball. In Manhattan, for instance, a fan with cable TV can watch as many as 14 games a week with a little dial switching. It stands to reason that Sunday is hardly a special day for the NBA in New York, as long as the Knicks are not a factor.
"We definitely need a strong team in New York," says Houston President Ray Patterson. After all, it was in the early part of this decade, when the Knicks won two championships, that the NBA came to be hailed as the "Sport of the '70s." However, none of the teams has yet offered to hold a fire sale of players to help them out.
Thus Sonny Werblin, the veteran entrepreneur who was hired in December 1977 as president of Madison Square Garden expressly to pump new life into the Knicks, is not so sure of the league's good intentions. "If they want us to be strong, why won't anyone trade with New York?" he says. "I'll tell you. It's part of the 'Kill New York syndrome.' People want to see us fail."
Whether or not this is true, the Knicks' policy for the past few years has helped establish the fact that high-priced superstars often cause more trouble than they're worth—and don't guarantee winning records, much less full houses.