Adapt or Else
Kings, NBA need creative recovery after virus
By R.E. Graswich
In my fourth or fifth year covering the Kings, loss after loss, I thought about ways to make the NBA season more interesting. One obvious trick was to shorten it.
I drew up a schedule. Fifty games in 60 nights. Then I moved everyone into a victory-weighted, single-game, sudden-death tournament until only two teams were standing
After that, a traditional best-of-seven final series would crown the champion. Start to finish, the season would run about three months—leaving plenty of time for other stuff. (As for preseason, I cut it down to a week. Players should stay in shape year-round.)
As always, the Kings were awful. Watching them was an exercise in frustration even for those of us who had good seats and got paid to sit in them. A compressed season would have been merciful. The team’s collapse was inevitable. Why drag it out?
That was 30 years ago. Then and now, there was too much money at stake to seriously consider shortening the season. This was long before the NBA signed its nine-year, $24 billion TV contract, a deal that keeps the cash spigot open for perennial losers like the Kings no matter how badly they perform.
But the coronavirus changed everything. The pandemic turned the cloistered world of sports into an afterthought and wiped out the 2020 calendar. Nobody knows when the games and crowds will return. Optimists are talking about Thanksgiving. Arenas and stadiums will be the last places to reopen.
The only certainty is that life will not be the same for the NBA and other leagues. With arenas dark, money has stopped pouring in. NBA players accepted 25 percent salary cuts in May. Team executives had their paychecks reduced in varying amounts. The River Cats are suffering as well, but aren’t responsible for player salaries.
The English Premier League, the world’s richest soccer alliance, admits several teams could face bankruptcy. Owners have asked players to accept 30 percent pay cuts. The players prefer salary deferrals. In Spain, eight soccer teams cut player salaries by 70 percent, including FC Barcelona. Similar conversations are happening everywhere, in all sports.
ESPN, ABC and Turner Sports, whose largesse has underwritten the NBA’s success in recent years, will expect adjustments for all those audiences they didn’t reach and commercials they didn’t sell.
In Sacramento, the situation could turn ugly. The Kings don’t own Golden 1 Center, but profit every time the doors open. The team manages the building in partnership with the landlord—the city of Sacramento. The Kings must pay rent so the city can afford to pay debt service on the bonds it sold to construct the building.
The Kings are like any business shutdown by COVID-19. They rely on cash flow to pay the lease and keep the lights on. Some of that money comes from the national TV contract and local media deals. Some comes from business partnerships. Some comes from season tickets. Some comes from selling cheeseburgers and beer and renting out the building for concerts.
Playing before TV cameras in an empty building—a suggestion made by some NBA owners—won’t replace all that revenue.
A big chunk of the Kings’ liquidity has dried up for an unknown period of months, if not years. The Kings are secretive about the financial wherewithal of their bosses, but sports owners who lack liquidity will have to find other sources to keep their clubs solvent.
There’s no guarantee fans will instantly flock back and buy expensive tickets to boring games when arenas reopen. The shutdown may realign our priorities. The economy could be hobbled for years, impacting corporate expense accounts that fatten the NBA.
During the Great Recession, the Maloof family owned the Kings. The Maloofs were desperate, running out of money. They had to liquidate. Presumably, current chairman Vivek Ranadive and partners are better resourced.
Ranadive is a creative guy. He knows the world has cataclysmically shifted. Creativity will be critical for the Kings. Maybe 50 games in 60 nights isn’t such a dumb idea.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found and shared at the all-new InsideSacramento.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.