Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Business of Basketball Is Business

The wealthy are often infatuated with the power and privileges of wealth. But their one true abiding, unshakable love is of wealth itself.

That's why Donald Sterling can't get into the Staples Center this evening. That's why he'll soon be a former owner of a National Basketball Association team. The belief among his fellow NBA owners, intelligently expressed by their most intelligent member Mark Cuban, that the wealthy should not be accountable for their words and beliefs, was overridden by the threat Sterling posed to the NBA income of those owners.

Never think for a nanosecond rich people shrug off costs. Nobody worries more about them. And Sterling posed a real and dangerous threat to the revenue streams of his soon to be former peers -- several threats.

Threat the first and most obvious. Avowed racism throws a wrench the size of Montana into the spokes of the NBA business model. It has two segmented markets. The older more affluent white guys who buy the tickets, and the mostly younger people of all races, ethnic groups, etc. who watch the games on TV and buy the league's crap.

The genius of David Stern was that he recognized the relationship between these two groups. The older white guys liked the NBA because it is a way of not feeling like they're older. Back in the day, covering 76er- Celtics games around the turn of the century, I used to howl (internally) with laughter at the site of short, balding stockbrokers dressed in Alan Iverson jerseys and gold chains high-fiving each other. Stern, smarter than me by far, saw profit in those poor clucks.

Sterling threatened both customer bases. The immediate loss of Clipper corporate sponsors following the revelation of his remarks (BTW, just how much of a loser must one be to reach a situation where one's estranged wife is suing one's estranged mistress?) was a signal that the older white guys were aware that Sterling had harshed their fantasy to a lethal extent. The younger guys had figured it out on their own. That it involved a team in LA, the frontrunners capital of the universe (sorry, Manhattan) only made the boil grow to critical size more quickly/

Threat the second was less obvious but more dangerous in the long run. NBA players were evidently prepared to boycott all playoff games against the Clippers for the duration. That would have, among other things, made the Clippers champs by default if they hadn't joined the boycott. But mostly, it would have cost many teams much gate revenue, all the teams TV revenue and worst of all created the first sports work stoppage where fan opinion would have been on the side of the players, not the owners.

THAT precedent was something too horrible for the owners to contemplate. On top of immediate and significant revenue losses, they would be deprived of their second-most potent weapon in labor disputes. Capital hates unpredictability, and it should.

Accordingly, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver got the green light to ban Sterling and ask the owners to throw him out of the league. We're all grown-ups here, right? We know Silver would never have lifted a finger without the owners giving him the OK? I thought so. Donald Sterling is no longer a threat to NBA peace and prosperity. He may generate a bunch more billable hours for the NBA's attorneys, but that's just petty cash.

Sterling's destiny is to become a landmark case in California probate courts both before and after his death. The NBA's destiny is to quickly return to the hawking of replica jerseys.

The Los Angeles Clippers destiny? I hope the rumors are right and Oprah buys the team. That way if they crap out in the playoffs, maybe season ticket holders will get a free car.


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