NBA / Jul 12, 2011 / 2:00 pm

NBA Small-Market Teams Are An Endangered Species

Tyreke Evans

Tyreke Evans (photo. Nicky Woo)

As the NBA enters a lockout which threatens players, fans and owners with the possibility of no basketball for the 2011-2012 season, questions about the viability of the league have taken precedence in labor talks between those writing the checks and those cashing them.

Though the NBA is claiming that 22 of 30 teams lost money last season, that number has been widely challenged with mixed results. The weight of the claim, however, lies far from the amount of teams purportedly losing money. Instead, it’s which teams are losing money that is most worrisome.

Small market teams have been suffering the most in recent years. Looking at a helpful graphic from Maury Brown, we can see that in terms of revenue, 10 of the bottom 17 teams in the NBA are from small markets. The well-publicized battle between the city of Sacramento and the Maloof brothers, who own the Kings, has drawn questions to how small-market teams can stay competitive while gaining a profit and maintaining a fan base.

There are several factors in creating a synergetic relationship between these two functions in a sports franchise and there is no doubt that it begins with competition. In an e-mail interview, Jake McCormick of We’re Bucked told me that he believed every small-market team needed a rival: “Rivalries drive ticket sales and hype, especially when the teams involved are good.”

Unfortunately, small-market teams often don’t have the benefit of long-term rivals due to history, success or relocation. Teams like Memphis, New Orleans and Sacramento don’t have lasting rivalries, at least not ones NBA fans outside of those cities can mention. Instead, winning often generates the largest response in terms of fan appreciation and return on capital for ownership. With the exception of Indiana, San Antonio, Portland and Utah, almost no small-market teams enjoy guaranteed commitment from ownership that a team will stick around as part of the city, whether by location or attractiveness.

With rivalries, large-market teams and their fan bases enjoy a commodity that has real cash value. With exceptions between the Lakers and Portland or Indiana and New York, it is the large-market teams that typically see each other as rivals. Over the course of NBA history, there has rarely been a large-market and small-market team that had a consistent, revenue-generating rivalry. Instead, large-market teams carry shared animosity for each other, creating a sense of competitiveness even when talent is lacking. Jared Wade of Eight Points Nine Seconds told me via e-mail that this is a huge help in boosting competition and fan interest: “Major market fans tend to be dismissive of small market franchises that they don’t expect to be challengers while actively loathing the other “haves” of the NBA landscape.”

Several of the writers contacted for this story felt the qualities that make markets like Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles attractive for NBA free agents act as the means to draw fans – and dollars – away from teams, making it even more essential that they field competitive rosters.

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  • ctkennedy

    the nba would improve if u got rid of 6 teams anyway ..i dont know what they r waitin for …there isnt 30 franchise players that can general wins or money for every team…so why have so many anyway

  • Big B

    Get rid of:
    New Orleans

  • Luigi

    Why DC?..

  • sans

    this was a very intelligent article. Listing PHX as a small market is questionable, as it is the 5th largest market in the US, plus a great place to winter in. No mention of the Cavs, which ranked 3rd in the league in attendance despite being putrid on the hardwood, but great article nonetheless.

  • heckler

    This COULDA/SHOULDA/WOULDA been a great article piece, except it DOESNT offer any solutions.

    We already know small market teams suffer to compete — in EVERY major sport; not just the NBA.

    The truth is, most of the pro sports leagues ARE made up of small market teams. and in the NBA, they dont do so bad.

    Utah went to the finals in back-2-back years. Indy was in the finals in 2000. New Jersey went to the finals in back-2-back seasons too. San Antonio has won the chip 4 times recently.

    so…small market teams still have success.


    The solution to the problem is for the NBA to acknowledge betting and gambling like the NFL. split those earnings via all teams (as state laws allow) or even give a LARGER share to mid-market and small market teams.

    Relocate certain teams. Does the city of LA really need the Clippers?..Really?
    Move the Clips to Louisville or Kentucky or St. Louis or even Kansas City. Those markets can all support a pro ball team. And dont gimme that shit about college bball; college bball plays once a week on Saturdays — it can be done.

    Does NY City really need 2 teams? Does Brooklyn need its own team?..Really?..what the fuck for? what next, a team for Rochester? The NBA should just research the next largest market without a team, and show proof they can support a team (this would take exactly 48hrs) and move the Nets to that new city. Their owner is from Russia; its doubtful he’d even recognize the difference.

    Seattle CAN support a team. Take the Raptors out of Canada. The NBA does NOT need a canadian team; although, Toronto is a GREAT city. There are FEW american businesses based in Toronto; hence, the CORPORATE dollars are NOT there to support a team; sheeeeit, who do you think are buying 35 home-games in luxury boxes and suites? certainly NOT anyone off Younge Street.

    Do any of you know who owns the NBA?
    hahahaha. when you figure that out, you’ll know exactly how to increase the value of small market teams and cities….

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    Part of the problem is that the environment in which the stars of the 60s-80s grew up is not the same as the environment in which today’s stars grew up. It’s hard for me to dislike a player if before and during the game, they’re joking around with my team’s star.

    Free agency can also be blamed.

    It’s not that new rivalries aren’t formed; it’s that they CAN’T, given the culture. What new rivalries are there? All the rivalries we have are from decades ago, before the AAU and free agency.

    Free agency and structured youth basketball aren’t bad things at all. But they certainly hinder rivalries.

  • ctkennedy

    get rid of Raptors
    no free agents want to go there…n they got to overpaid everybody to stay …if u took them 6 teams n had to make one squad …factorin in egos ..ex. deron williams wont backup chris paul n wont play the 2 …he wants to play the one …..u cant make a roster that can win the nba title n thats sad when its 20percent of the league

  • Knicksfan84

    Contraction doesn’t help, it actually hurts the NBA as a BRAND. The playing field needs to be evened out for all teams as a whole. They need 100% revenue sharing from top to bottom. That holds every team accountable for the profit of the league. Divide that pie equally across the board, salary cap all teams, grand-father those contracts that fall outside the range in but only account for the max allowable percentage of those deals in the cap.


    Top max allowable contract is $10million.
    Lebron makes $15..
    He accounts against your cap for $10million.
    Still gets paid the additional $5 million but does not count against cap. This will be paid directly from revenue sharing pot.

    Owners overall should be punished for foolish deals. And once it is absorbed over time, the league will be viable. Also the players after these deals now revert to new system along with those that enter it brand new and thus balance is returned.

    End of story.

    My apologies if it makes no sense what I wrote.

  • ctkennedy

    thats the problem it even enuff players worth the max to have 30 teams….plus it will shorten the regular season makin it more important …with lesser playoffs spots players will go harder FULL TIME n teams will have better depth overall

  • Chris

    So easy for everyone to say “get rid of these teams” and just name losing teams. You guys realize that mathematically, there has to be losing teams right? I’m not saying that every team is located perfectly but just naming losing teams makes you seem like a parrot.

    Take Charlotte for example. The Hornets failed there because they only had 8 luxury boxes in their arena so they couldn’t make the money they needed to stay (most ticket revenue is generated from those boxes, NOT general sales. The Bobcats, on the other hand, were stuck with a miser of an owner who refused to spend money on anything more the he was required to (i mean player salaries, advertising, etc) and only got Jordan last year. Give them more than a year before you say “oh they can’t succeed”

  • ctkennedy

    thats the problem who u gon give the money too …there isnt enuff franchise players based on winnin or drawin interest in the league for 30 teams…lets take the bobcats for the next 4yrs Kemba gon have the light pretty much …they gon have a losin record ALL 4yrs ..but Kemba gon put up around 17 n 7 aka BOBCATS best player …u know that u have to overpaid him or he gon walk but u know he aint worth what a Blake Griffin gon be worth 5yrs from now(he gon get whatever the max is) …if u the Bobcats what do u do? u cant get no free agents n u cant keep gettin young ..youth dont win in the league

  • Chris

    @ctkennedy it doesn’t matter how many “franchise” players there are. And before you jump down my throat look at it this way. Even if each team had a “franchise” player some organizations have to lose. It doesnt matter if there are 30 franchises and 30 “franchise” players or 22 and 22 or whatever. There has to be some losers.

    And also, in response to what you said, you cannot tell me for sure the bobcats will be terrible in 4 years. You dont know how good Kemba or Bismack will be. You can try and predict bust or whatever but it’s all guess work. This year, yes they will be god-awful. But in 4, you cant predict.

  • ctkennedy

    can the bobcats become good enuff to be a 8th seed yeah …but they will never contend for a title which is what the league claim they on…makin the playoffs aint sayin much when over HALF the league do it …with lesser teams u dont have to overpaid more players

  • http://balkzilla.com bmc

    Here’s an article on contraction in the NBA: http://www.balkzilla.com/hasta-la-vista-baby.html

    I think that the Dolans and Busses of the NBA need to give a little to allow smaller markets to compete, but I also think the league needs to contract as well.

  • Chris

    @ct You cannot say that the Bobcats have no hope at all to ever contend for a championship. all it takes is getting lucky on a top pick in the right draft. that’s it.

    @bmc that article is fine because it gives more teams than just recent losers and reasons. I think it is flawed because LA can for sure support two teams but at least thought other that “they’ve lost for 4 straight years” is in effect

  • http://yahoo.com Seymour Dicks

    There is no need for the contraction at all. It would not make any sense to take away the bobcats just because they had a few bad yyears. What I say to do is to somehow find a way to keep the franchise players on to the team that drafted them. Right now, I have no solution to that, but if anyone does have one, feel free to say it.

  • Mario

    The problem with small marketing teams. They don’t have the revenue to be a top teir franchise or a contender out of the conference. Sacramento came close in ways, but the Maloofs keeps messing up the player chemistry. Where half of their money is not going to that, but going to casinos and hotels in Las Vegas.

    New Orleans on the other hand have no GM. So, telling other GMs to take 10 – 15% off of their earnings to give to them mainly shows that the economy is real bad down there. Because every GM that was part of the Hornets franchise in New Orleans after post-Hurricane Katrina all filed for Chapter 11 (Bankruptcy for people who don’t know). The success rate for them in Oklahoma City was more impressive before the Thunder.

    Charlotte on the other hand is never going to get by with Michael Jordan at the wheel. He’s my favorite player and all. It’s like he’s there to make more money like he was doing his own Jordan Brand, and players who wear the shoes to make fans in awe. That even goes for UNC, St. John’s, and Georgetown plus the Michael Jordan High School showcase.

    Toronto can be good if they can move out of that country into the states. I mean… For one thing. You have a GM who still believes the key of winning is loading international flavor with zero defense, but more of an rapid offense back when he was the GM for Phoenix. The only time Air Canada will be sold out is when Steve Nash returns to his country (not South Africa) to wow the crowd; and when they get a chance to boo Vince Carter as usual. Other than that… The arena is mainly used for Drake concerts, Cardinal Offishal concerts, Toronto Maple Leafs, and whoever the next breakout musician from the show DeGrasi High. Of course you got Lucian Bute and Jean Pascal fights there too.

    Minnesota can do good if they don’t let that idiot Kahn making the draft picks. I mean… All that potential in the NBA Draft. This fool is steadily picking players from Europe to make future investments with. Drafting Rubio is one thing. Making draft picks for players that’s never going to be in the NBA for years like Henk Norel; the self-proclaimed Jason Williams protege Nick Calathes who dropped out of Florida to play in Greece; Tanguy Ngombo who is clearly the same age as Jorge Garbojosa when he got drafted and Gary Neal; Paulao Prestes which no one knows about; Loukas Mavrokefalidis who was a 2006 draft right made by Kahn; and Nemanja Bjelica who could possibly be on the roster. With those names you can only scratch your head and wonder why is Kahn throwing the team in flames? It’s totally worst than those 4 guards he drafted, and once he’s doing a positive pick he’s in the process messing up. This team could clearly build around the names of Garnett, Marbury, Sprewell, Cassell, and Gugliotta if there wasn’t no jealousy intention because KG was the face of that franchise making the money.

    New Jersey can build a team. They have the Russian and Jay-Z. The only problem is that they’re moving to Brooklyn, and Jay-Z is going to be popping up at college games taking pictures with the players to cost them money. If they can find another star player, and build a real strong cast of role players. I believe they can do it.

    Washington needs more leadership. They have so many young players on the team. They can’t even have both Jordan Crawford and John Wall fighting for the lime light at guard. Nick Young is a good player just like JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche. They need some more experienced vets on the team to push them. Ever since Gilbert done lost his mind to actually become Agent 0 with a gun. It’s like they afraid to gamble on bring in star quality players.

    Last but not least. The team should never be ashamed… Because it’s the city not the franchise in general. The Cleveland Cavs. Getting over the relationship of LeBron James is a tough thing to handle. There’s things to learn from that situation. Colin Cowherd said it the best. “The city of Cleveland is the poorest sports franchise. Where LeBron James is averaging more than any other sports team in that city. Which is the reason Indians and Browns can not excel.” Kind of agree, but it’s true. The best thing that was done is where they bounced back although they still have to blow up that roster for draft picks Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and newly acquired Omri Casspi. I can see this team reloading to be a playoff team, and if they can get rid of that bulk contract of Baron Davis.

  • Mario

    With that being said… 45 million hard cap should only go to the teams that want to make their team better instead splurging it on teams to be ridiculously loaded like Miami, New York, Boston, L.A. Lakers, and so on. Milwaukee and Detroit needs it too which I left those two teams out of the picture. Although, that 45 million would be there for the teams that needs it to be a contender.