What’s in a market?

(This post is meant to accompany this data!)

The term “big market” gets tossed around a lot this time of year as NBA front offices negotiate and jockey for a chance to improve their team. It’s a common perception that larger media markets, because they generally earn more money from local TV deals and non-shared revenue like team store gear, have an increased ability to spend on free agents. In the view of many, this means that big market teams have an unfair edge when it comes to signing the most coveted players available. These advantages in resources tear top talents from cities nestled in the peaceful Mountain Time Zones like Utah, Phoenix and Denver, and deposit them under brighter lights in bigger cities.

But then how do we explain Miami or Portland, two cities that have been active and aggressive in acquiring talent over the past few seasons? Portland is in only the 22nd largest media market and Miami the 17th (neck and neck with LeBron’s old home market of Cleveland-Akron). To start, the two teams have the first and third wealthiest owners in the NBA, respectively. What’s more, Paul Allen and Micky Arison have both shown they are willing to shell out cash to pull in players, despite their relatively small-time locales.

Or consider the dichotomy between the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers. The two teams play in the same building, but does anyone think of the Clippers as a big market team? Probably not, because it has historically been a cut-rate organization that could never develop the assets or cultural cache of the Lakers due to awful ownership and perhaps a bit of bad karma.

The 76ers play in the league’s sixth largest media market, but Philadelphia is so focused on football and baseball that seats to Sixers playoff games are often left vacant. This season, despite a rich history, a major market and the league’s 12th highest payroll, the 76ers are dead last in the league in attendance percentage.

Meanwhile, the once weak-market Golden State Warriors, who are actually in an enormous and pro basketball-crazed area, now has an owner with deep pockets. Is there mobility for such a market (as there was for Cleveland)? And if such mobility exists, aren’t complaints about big markets going Hungry Hungry Hippos on the NBA’s elite players really in reference to the fact that certain teams will always be willing and able to spend more than others?

Clearly it takes more than a major media markets and high payrolls to dominate the free agent landscape. In fact, the Knicks currently boast a lower payroll and better players after years of bewilderingly ineffective spending. However, it’s also often true that an owner’s willingness to spend and the General Manager’s ability to organize and move assets can be a crucial factor in player acquisition.

But what about the player? When deciding where to work, players choose using criteria we can’t fully know or judge. Chauncey Billups was upset at being shipped from his childhood home, Kendrick Perkins was brought to tears by the news he would be leaving his Celtic comrades, and Amare Stoudemire went to New York not because he hungered for the big city, but because they agreed to pay him many millions more than anyone else would.

Some, like Lamar Odom, stay in big markets because they like the lifestyle, the beach, their boss, and their companies’ success. And who could blame them? When everyday people make decisions about where to work and live, a variety of factors come into play, and each individual weighs them differently.

Like most people, NBA players would like to be paid more. Exercising their power within the NBA marketplace does not make them greedy for cash and glitz, but practical—especially considering that the very best NBA players literally cannot be paid enough under the current salary cap restrictions.

The fact is that the NBA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement supports smaller markets through revenue sharing, a rookie scale that benefits small market teams, financial incentives to prevent players from switching teams and a soft cap/luxury tax system. It’s not the NFL, but the NBA’s system did allow Indiana, Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, Cleveland and Orlando (all cities in the bottom half of the league in terms of media market size) to reach the NBA Finals from 2000-2009. If the rumors regarding the next CBA have credence, wealthy owners will be protected even more from spending their millions like Montgomery Brewster, and small market teams will have an even greater opportunity to win.

We know the evidence linking payroll to victories in the NBA is scarce. But what’s really troubling about the “big market domination” meme is that it also imposes an unflattering collective identity, one that implies players don’t care about “the right things,” upon a group of incredibly diverse individuals.

Though convenient, the term big market is in fact a conflation of diverse inputs that determine the power of a franchise to acquire top NBA talent.

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