No Magic Formula
Hold your tears, please, for Magic Johnson, whose bid to own a pro basketball team in Toronto was denied last week by the NBA expansion committee. Most of the press reports about the pitched battle to land the NBA's 28th franchise concentrated on the league's passing over the 12-man group that included Johnson, as if his mere presence should have turned the tide. The NBA hierarchy still feels warmly toward Johnson, the league's supreme goodwill ambassador during the 1980s. But, in fact, the group that did get the bid (pending rubber-stamp approval by the board of governors on Nov. 3), one headed by Toronto businessman John Bitove, had the inside track from the beginning. By the time that Canadian expansion became a public topic early this year, Bitove had already impressed key NBA personnel with his business and basketball savvy—he is the driving organizational force behind the world championships that will be held in Toronto in August—and his determination to build a 22,000-seat basketball-only downtown facility. At the first expansion meetings in Salt Lake City in February it was nearly impossible to see Jerry Colangelo, the CEO of the Phoenix Suns and chair of the expansion committee, without also seeing Bitove, so closely had he attached himself to Colangelo.
Actually Magic's I-have-a-dream campaign to own an NBA team has become a bit tiresome. It's almost as if one of the requirements for new ownership is to pay homage to Magic. The third Toronto entity vying for the franchise, the Palestra Group, Ltd., said before the expansion vote that it would be happy to include Magic on its management team if it got the bid. And even Bitove's group would love to have Johnson come aboard in some capacity; one highly placed NBA official insists that it's going to happen.
But it probably won't. To Magic's credit, he wants to be a financial partner and not, in the words of his manager, Lon Rosen, "some Las Vegas greeter with no real role." Johnson's immediate plan is to stick with his current ownership group, which is headed by music promoters Michael Cohl and Bill Ballard, as it seeks other NBA ownership possibilities. The group's best chance would seem to be with existing teams that are looking for buyers, but that list, which traditionally includes teams such as the Pacers, the Nets and, lately, the Timberwolves, is diminishing. The Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs have been sold in the last year. And the $1 billion from national TV revenues that starts kicking in next year gives fence-sitting owners the incentive to hold on to their franchises.
The mission of the Deuce, ESPN-speak for that network's new cable service, ESPN2, which debuted last Friday, is to attract the 18- to 34-year-old audience that advertisers find so demographically desirable. Based on the first few editions of the Deuce's flagship show, SportsNight—excuse us, SportsNight—the new entry should be renamed ESPN2too. If you think Hollywood's choice of Tom Cruise to play one of Ann Rice's vampires is oafish casting, consider this lineup. Genial dweeb and sports polymath Keith Olbermann in a motorcycle jacket? MTV refugee "Downtown" Julie Brown patrolling that happenin', cutting-edge demimonde, the sports bar? Mitch Albom, whose have-a-nice-day columns in the Detroit Free Press are renowned for their cloying boosterism, spouting opinion dressed in executioner's black? On the studio set opening night, poor Hammer, one of several drop-in celebrities, looked as if he had been plunked down on Mars and wanted to grab the first bus back. A friend of ours sized up ESPN2 quite well: "A bunch of middle-aged guys pretending to be young and a bunch of white guys pretending to be black." And a bunch more reasons for generation Xers to distrust baby boomers.
O.K., so they can't beat the Atlanta Braves (page 16). But the Colorado Rockies just completed what was, dollar for dollar, probably the most successful rookie season of am expansion team in history. Everyone expected Colorado's home crowds to be large—Rocky Mountain baseball fever has existed for three decades, a big reason that Major League Baseball dared bring the summer game to ski country—but nobody knew they would be this big.
The Rockies drew 4,483,350 fans, a major league record and more than the Mets' and Yankees' attendance combined. Incredibly, their smallest home crowd was 48,768. The Rockies even drew well on the road, thereby becoming the first team to be watched by more than seven million fans.
From an ownership standpoint the most important thing the Rockies did was cut substantially into the $95 million expansion fee. Even though the Rockies and this year's other expansion team, the Florida Marlins, didn't get the $15 million every other team received from baseball's national TV contract, some analysts think Colorado's profit will be as high as $15 million. Even more conservative estimates of $8 million to $10 million would put the Rockies among baseball's eight most profitable teams. Then, too, the Marlins, who drew 3.1 million fans to Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, probably made between $5 million and $8 million. Ultimately the Rockies and the Marlins will have to deliver on the field to keep their turnstiles spinning. Even in Denver 0 and 13 against the Braves will get old in a hurry.