Sunday, March 1, 2009

Could Pittsburgh Be An NBA Town?

If you are any sort of an internet sports junkie, and if you are reading a little-known Pittsburgh sports blog, I'd have to assume that you are, then you probably are at least familiar with ESPN's resident Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. A lot of Pittsburghers probably don't read him for any number of reasons. I mean, he writes a ton about Boston and pro basketball, and neither one really endears him to us 'Burghers. And his columns are sometimes so long that you could probably read 10-15 other sports stories in the same amount of time. But, all that considered, the guy is the best columnist around, and I personally never miss a column or podcast that he does. If I took all the time I devote to Simmons and spent it doing homework and studying instead, I might even have a job offer or two by now (Actually that's not true. No one has a job offer right now). But where's the fun in that?

So anyway, imagine my surprise when I came to the concluding few paragraphs of Simmons' "Welcome to the No Benjamins Association" column from Friday in which he details the financial woes of his beloved NBA and how he is predicting there could be several NBA franchise moves in the coming years and I read the following line: "Also, I like the thought of Pittsburgh landing the Nets or Grizzlies for some reason." Go back and read that sentence again. Okay, read it one more time. If you are still unclear, read it again just to be safe. Simmons, one of the most outspoken NBA fans on the planet and a guy with what seems like a fair amount of NBA connections "likes" Pittsburgh to land an NBA franchise? Of all the talk in recent years about the Pittsburgh sports scene, did you ever think you'd see the day when one of the most famous and well-respected sports columnists in the country suggests with a straight face that Pittsburgh could be in the running for an NBA team? And then he backs it up with a fair amount of reasons that make sense? We really do live in some crazy times.

Personally, I enjoy the NBA, and would like to have a team here. I think it is a very frustrating league though because I've long thought there are some seriously shady dealings in it, but I'm still a fan nonetheless. I dare not write about it on here, though, unless its to talk about DeJuan Blair or Sam Young's prospects for an NBA future as it has longed seemed to me that Pittsburghers just don't care about the NBA for the most part.

On the business side, there is actually a fair amount of validity to Simmons' argument for Pittsburgh as a potential suitor. If you read Simmons' article, or at least skim through that 5,400 word beast, there really are a ton of NBA cities that just flat out don't draw well and have bad arenas. In Pittsburgh, they would just not draw well, as they would have a nice arena. That can boost revenues even if attendance is only decent. Plus there is the novelty act to rely on at first, as can currently be seen happening in Oklahoma City. No matter how lousy the team is, people will be interested to at least check them out in their first season so long as the price isn't outrageous. So on this level, I suppose Pittsburgh is at least worth a second glance as a potential NBA home.

But personally, I have major doubts about Pittsburgh's ability to support an NBA team. Actually, ability probably isn't the right word. The Burgh has done pretty well for itself in these nasty economic times. I mean, there are a lot of job losses going on in the area, no question, but for the most part, Pittsburgh has at least weathered the storm better than many bigger cities. So we probably could support a team. I think our willingess though is the big question. Say if the Bucks or Nets move here, as Simmons suggests. Well, there would certainly be a novelty effect at first to draw some attendance. I mean hell, even the Pirates sell out their home opener because people miss baseball, and that's only about a 6 month absence. And many citizens have shown at least a passing interest in basketball through Pitt (more on that later), so I suppose there is hope for that interest to grow. But what happens if the Bucks or Nets move here in 2011/12 season (it won't happen early than that I don't think) and that franchise is still a trainwreck with no marketable youngsters? What if Vince Carter is still jogging up and down the court while Yi Jianlin celebrates his 47th birthday? (I apologize to the countless Pittsburgh fans who didn't get those jokes) Pittsburgh won't even have to viciously turn on that team like they do on the Pirates every June. They'll just start ignoring them. And that's when all of a sudden everyone realizes: Holy hell, Pittsburgh doesn't have enough people to support 4 pro sports teams and a major college in the long-term, and the newbie is just getting slaughtered at the box office because of it. There is only so much total interest that a city can have in sports as a whole, and when that city is not nearly as big as most other 4-sport cities, its probably a bad sign.

Unless the team that comes here is good, it could get ugly in a hurry, especially considering where basketball season falls in the calendar. The NBA season goes from late October until mid-April and then the playoffs run until approximately early October (just kidding, it only feels that way). Sorry NBA team, this city practically shuts down from September to January for the Steelers. It's a miracle people even go to work sometimes during that stretch, there ain't no way an NBA team can fit into that schedule. And if February rolls around and this new team is struggling through an 82 game basketball season, people aren't going to show up. Pittsburgh is a very, very fickle sports town when it comes to attending anything other than a Steelers game.

4 Cases in Point: 1)If it weren't for having one of the greatest talents in hockey history in Mario Lemieux, the Penguins would have never survived. And even with Mario, it's debatable whether they would have survived without gaining two more once-in-a-generation talents in Sid and Geno. If the Pens were still lousy and Sid turned out to be Alexandre Daigle 2.0 and Geno hadn't snuck out of Russia like his name was James Bond and the Pens were still lousy, I don't think the public would have backed a new arena and the Pens would be playing in Kansas City by now. 2) The Pirates have a die-hard contingent that dwindles every year and the apathy grows by the year. Even when a skinny Barry Bonds was wearing the Bucs uniform and turning into the best 5-tool talent in baseball the attendance was far from spectacular. 3)Pitt hoops was big in the 80's when Jerome Lane and Charles Smith were in town, but played in a tiny building so its hard to really know their true popularity, and I'm too young to know the real general public attitude. I do know that the program vanished off the map for most of the 90's until Ben Howland came to Oakland and Steve Pedersen somehow got the Pete built. 4)Pitt football was above average in a middling conference in the early 00's and couldn't draw that well and will likely never draw to capacity at Heinz unless they can win the conference first (even then I'm skeptical).

See a pattern here? Unless we get the next LeBron or D-Wade or Kobe, I just can't a basketball fervor developing in this town like it has for hockey. At least not one that can be sustained and built upon to give the city the beginnings of a foundation for pro basketball.

Some may try to claim that the Pitt hoops team has helped to build a basketball following in the city. I don't really buy that. I think the success of Pitt hoops in drawing 12,000+ 20 times a season is due much more to the passion of the alumni to see their school win than it is a growing fondness for b-ball. I don't think there is much of a correlation between college and the pros. Otherwise teams like the Pacers wouldn't be having a hard time right now.

All this isn't to say that the Burgh couldn't do better than Memphis or Charlotte or New Orleans. I certainly think we'd at least be their equal, and we'd have a newer arena to boot. Hell, if we can somehow get the Hornets and Chris Paul, the team might just stand a chance to make it here. But Pittsburgh isn't where the NBA needs to be or even wants to be. It is an intriguing possibility I suppose, and if the NBA does go into the nosedive the Sports Guy is predicting, I think that anything is possible, but maybe the NBA (and the NHL and maybe even MLB) would be better off acknowledging something many sports fans have known for some time: There aren't enough cities around to support all these teams for the long-term. If you want real success for your league, cut back 4 teams or 6 teams or even 8 teams and get the hell out of markets that don't work, like Memphis, Charlotte and New Orleans in basketball and any place where it's too hot to ice skate outside in the winter in the NHL.

So, Sports Guy, sorry to say that while I certainly appreciate your faith in Pittsburgh, I just can;t envision a scenario where Pittsburgh truly becomes a viable NBA option. They may not be the worst option around, but that alone probably shouldn't qualify us for the role. I just don't think that the interest would be there for the long-term unless we are lucky enough to get a franchise with a superstar already on the roster like OKC got with Kevin Durant.


Sean said...

I'm late in commenting on this, but I saw the Simmons column and wondered how he could ever include Pittsburgh as a viable NBA option. Think about all of the cities with franchises in all four sports: New York, Chicago, Philly, DC, Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Detroit and that might be it. Pittsburgh doesn't have the population the size of these cities. Please note that LA and Houston, which are much bigger than Pittsburgh, don't even have franchises in all 4 sports. 3 of the 4 main sports plus Pitt football and basketball seems to be fine for Pittsburgh.

Jonathan Bryant said...

Yeah I'd agree, there's no way Pittsburgh can support another team. There are so many bigger cities that have struggled to support 4 teams. I think we've seen just how hard it is for Pittsburgh to support the three teams with the Penguins struggling in attendance a few years back and the Pirates constantly struggling. You're right, if an NBA team came here and stunk, there's no way they'd be able to survive long.

Anonymous said...

I thought Pitt basketball was playing the role of a pro team in town? You know..proving the cliche that colleges draw wells in towns without major league franchises. I wouldn't want anything to interfere with the Panthers!

Anonymous said...

Even if a Pittsburgh NBA franchise would start strong right out the gate, or even win an NBA title or two, as soon as the winning would go away so would the fan interest. Heck, aren't the Rams in the NFL already flirting with moving back to LA? Even a possible Pittsburgh team coming off an NFL title and starting the next season 15-0 in October would be obscured by the fact that STEELERS FOOTBALL would be in session! It would certainly be nice but, serious folks, the Burgh having an NBA team is like Portland, Oregon supporting an NFL team plain and simple.