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Who Says Cincinnati Can't Have an NBA Team?

By Bill Peterson · July 18th, 2007 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Andy Furman is on another letter-writing campaign, banging the drum to bring an NBA team into Cincinnati. If you can't have an NBA team, having a drum banger is the next best thing.

We shouldn't say Furman is working behind the scenes, as the letters haven't exactly been kept under wraps. A cynic might wonder if Furman is campaigning for an NBA team or if he's campaigning to make it known that he's campaigning for an NBA team. In either case, he's somehow campaigning for an NBA team, and, anyway, he's right. It's always worth considering.

It certainly could work. If everything comes together just right, an NBA franchise like the Seattle Supersonics could drop into Cincinnati, play for a couple years at U.S. Bank Arena, contend instantly, last deep into the playoffs and fill the house every night. A bidding war between corporate citizens would ensue, because there just wouldn't be enough luxury suites, premium season tickets or advertising space to go around.

Meanwhile, Hamilton County voters would breathlessly approve a bond issue for going on $200 million to build a new basketball arena, understanding the team would receive a very favorable lease. Voters would be confident of the project's smooth completion, if they don't remember how local governments handled the last two stadiums.

That's the scenario if everything goes right. That's how an NBA team would work. What are the chances?

Here is why an issue like the NBA in Cincinnati always has legs: because it could work. It couldn't work in Des Moines. It didn't work in Vancouver. It could work in Cincinnati. But in order for it to work in Cincinnati, an enormous groundswell of public will would have to emerge, almost to the point of turning it into a political issue, and the cards aren't dealt that way.

People in the Cincinnati area would have to be starving for basketball, and the NBA would have to be more prestigious than the pro sports Cincinnati already has. But neither of those is true. Cincinnati already enjoys a plenty good big-time basketball scene and the NBA is a league towns pursue when they can't dance with Major League Baseball or the NFL, both of which already are in Cincinnati.

Which doesn't mean Cincinnati couldn't support an NBA team. To answer that question, we might try a little thought experiment, a journey into the imagination. Consider: Would Cincinnati sports fans turn out consistently, 17,000 strong, for a poor NBA team? Off the cuff, it seems highly unlikely. Yet an average attendance of 17,000 would have ranked 19th in the 30-team NBA last season.

Last fall, according to Forbes, eight NBA team owners sent League Commissioner David Stern a letter saying the present economic system makes it too hard for them to profit. Among the team owners signing were those from Charlotte, Memphis, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

The Pacers averaged 15,359 in attendance last season, down from 16,179 a year earlier. During the better year, according to Forbes, the Pacers lost $12.5 million, increasing their debt to about $50 million. Forbes said the Grizzlies lost $18.5 million in 2005-06 and have more than $150 million in debt.

The NBA works in big markets where teams control their own arenas and in small markets, like San Antonio, where the team happens to be very good. But a bad team in a small market can bleed money. Since Cincinnati is a small market, it's important to take that seriously. After all, at least half the teams are bad.

Even if the team in Cincinnati were good, how would the marketplace respond? Last year the combined announced home attendance for men's basketball at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University came to 307,616, and it was obviously a slow year. Now we add an NBA team, flooding the live basketball market with another 700,000 seats over a 41-game home schedule. We're tripling the supply of big-time basketball tickets in a town where neither of two good college programs averaged 10,000 per game last season.

Maybe an NBA team would prosper, but at what cost to the college scene? If the college scene isn't hurt by the NBA presence, does that portend healthy attendance for the NBA team?

Would an NBA loser interest Cincinnati fans enough to stay even or make a little money? Somebody has to lose, and the franchises looking around aren't playoff regulars.

We know Cincinnati supported the Bengals through terrible times and, now that the Reds are on their worst run of the past 60 years, the fans are admirably engaged. Midway through their seventh straight losing season, they still draw better than eight other MLB clubs, including winners in Cleveland and Oakland.

Supporting a bad NBA team stands to be a challenge. The league doesn't share revenues beyond national broadcasts, so the problem is similar to Mike Brown's beef about the Bengals trying to make it in the NFL. It's fine to have a salary cap but if the cap number is indexed to average team revenues, then smaller market teams are at a disadvantage.

The Spurs are a well-known exception, and they're a special case. One would search in vain for another major pro sports franchise within 200 miles of the Spurs, and that area contains only a handful of far-away major college programs, which don't draw very well anyway for basketball. One can't compare the Spurs with the situation for an NBA team competing against the NFL, Major League Baseball and two city universities, to say nothing of all that glitters in Lexington, Louisville and Columbus.

If the NBA team in Cincinnati isn't likely to be very good, that almost suggests a reason for not having a team. People are happy enough without a failing NBA team to curse. Why put people in a worse mood?

If Cincinnati wanted an NBA team, if the will were summoned to marshal the resources, Cincinnati could certainly have an NBA team. Arguably, the only reason Cincinnati doesn't have an NBA team is because it doesn't want one. Maybe that says all we need to know about the possibility.



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