Should Sports Change Revenue Sharing to TARP-like Program?

Last week’s SBJ cover story on the state of Detroit’s sports teams battling through the recession further illuminates how hard the recession has hit that part of the country. Sports teams are the least of Detroit’s problems, yet they remain one of the few refuges for an area fraught with unemployment and failing businesses.

Three key points I took away from the story: 1) Detroit has phenomenal sports fans, it’s aggregate per-cap attendance across all four major sports as a testament; 2) for the most part, the city is blessed with top ownership (we know about the Lions), Davidson and Ilitch have put wining teams on the field, done right by the fans, and tried to do right by local business; 3) the recession is stronger than both #1 and #2, which will make it difficult to sustain these teams over the next decade.

Ticket sales and sponsorship revenue are the most critical and most volatile revenue streams for teams. The economy has put both under significant pressure in the Detroit market. Teams face a steeper trade-off in ticket sales vs. price reductions than most markets and its key sponsors lost significant marketing budget. Lions aside, since the NFL shares revenue in a more equitable manner across the league, each team expects a significant revenue drop this year, which immediately makes it more difficult to field a championship-caliber team.

Looking further down the line, the auto industry will never look the same, and the future of these key sponsors and a critical regional source of employment is in jeopardy for the long-term. That said, will Detroit teams require, and should they receive a boost from the league’s central pool, similar to the government backing its local companies.

From a pure market size perspective it’s a border line top 10 DMA (11 to be exact), but the unemployment numbers, per capita income, and discretionary income numbers make it a candidate for help. Should leagues focus more on helping these owners, who have proven they invest in the team, have loyal fan bases, and can be a key market for leagues than the low-income owners that reap the benefits of revenue-sharing, yet do not add much value to the league.

Putting absolute numbers aside, using forward-looking marginal revenue metrics, leagues should consider if adding each dollar they subsidize Detroit with adds more value to the league and other teams than each dollar MLB subsidizes Pittsburgh or Florida, for example. Market size, ownership wealth, and absolute revenue numbers don’t encapsulate who most needs revenue sharing. Leagues should visit which teams need it at the margin, and how much value the investment (and it is investment by the other teams) can add to the league at large. Detroit – along with other traditional sports cities in struggling regions, are good candidates to consider in the short-term.

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Celts Avoid Disaster, Hang On To Win

This column should start by welcoming Ray Allen to the playoffs – thanks for deciding to play on Wednesday, Ray. But the real story is Boston’s play down the stretch. Holding a 17 point second half lead at home in the playoffs, as much as 12 points in the fourth quarter, the Pistons had no right to even have a chance in the final minute. The Celtics fell apart down the stretch – again. Go to the Atlanta series, the Cleveland series, now against Detroit, each time closely contested game Boston plays in they struggle to finish out the game.In Game 7 against Cleveland they got a few big plays, just enough to stave off Lebron. Last night, they needed to rely on the big cushion they built early, and foul shots down the stretch. The problem: nobody wants to take the big shot late in the game.

Garnett led the way with 33 points, but each time he touched the ball in the fourth the Big Ticket looked pass first. The last few possessions, Detroit was able to lay off him on the perimeter since he didn’t even look to shoot.  Allen did most of his damage early, canning five three’s, none late in the game. Kendrick Perkins provided the big role player performance that teams need to win playoff games. His only contribution in the fourth – a technical foul. Trumping Rasheed Wallace to see who can make the biggest mental mistake as late in the game as possible.

Eventually the lack of mental toughness, that missing killer instinct that the champions have, will catch up with Boston. Surprisingly, it hasn’t yet. But this series is not over. Detroit rides a wave of confidence into Game 6, back at The Palace.

Chauncey Billups was back to his old tricks, 26 points and 6 assists, in a big game. Backup Rodney Stuckey continued to play solid off the bench, stepping up with a big three pointer late – clearly he’s not afraid to take a big shot. Detroit – the king of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – needs to bring the defensive intensity they showed in the fourth quarter, for the entire game. Boston finished over 50% shooting for the game, and dominated the rebounding battle. A vaunted defensive unit, Detroit cannot win giving up 100+ points, they need to play with urgency and intensity for four quarters.

Billups, Hamilton, even Wallace, played solid most of the game on offense. Yet, the sparkplug I keep mentioning, the Pistons equivalent to Ginobili, Tayshaun Prince, still has his head in the sand. Another non-descript performance. He needs to make his presence felt, defensively, offensively, on the glass, in some way. He’s multi-talented, its time to show some of those talents.

Anyone that says they can predict what will happen Friday is crazy. We’ve seen Boston fail to crack 70 on the road, and we saw them steal Game 3 in Detroit. We’ve seen Detroit look unbeatable and unworthy of being a playoff team from a game to game basis in this postseason. With Billups appearing healthy – though Rip Hamilton appeared to injure his elbow late in the game – the Pistons get the edge at home, especially since Boston still looks shaky on the road. If the game is close, or any game here on in is close, Boston has to prove they can hit a big shot and close out a game. Until then, the Celts are walking a dangerous line.

Celtics Become Road Warriors

Venues change, series change, but the recipe to win does not. It’s very basic, the team who’s role players and bench make the biggest contribution, that has a decided three point advantage or rebounding edge, and can hit big shots to stop a run wins the game. Home, away, higher seed, lower seed, MVP, Coach of the Year, no matter what. Boston did all of the above Saturday night in a dominant 94-80 win in Detroit, that elusive first playoff road win.

Boston’s second unit won this game in the first quarter. The Celts started with 11 straight points out of the gate, and led 15-4 at the 5:34 mark of the first. A minute prior to that Kevin Garnett exited with two early fouls, followed to the bench by Ray Allen a minute later, also with two quick ones. Led by Rodney Stuckey, Detroit reeled off 13 consecutive points in a four minute span. Already up against the wall after losing at home in Game Two, facing the pressure of not having won a road game all postseason, with two of its three stars on the bench in foul trouble, having handed away an 11 point lead, Boston easily could have wilted right here. Likewise, Detroit had a chance to stomp them.

Instead, the Boston reserves – James Posey, Sam Cassell, and Glen Davis – led a 10-0 run to close the quarter. Boston led 25-17 and never looked back. Detroit made runs the rest of the game, but right there the game had a chance to either way. Boston not only responded, its role players, who failed to show up in Game Two , responded.

Detroit’s offense played abysmal. Out of sync consistently, the Pistons had chances to cut into Boston’s lead, which bloated to 18 at halftime and stayed in double digits most of the second half, but could not string together good offensive possessions at any point in the game. Billups and Prince killed the Pistons in different ways. Billups, perhaps still hampered by the hamstring injury that forced him to miss a game in Orlando last series, sat for long stretches of the game as Stuckey stepped up and played a great game in his stead. However, when Billups played he hurt the team. Saunders inserted Billups with 5:30 left for a last desperation run. After the Pistons trimmed the lead to 9 and made a defensive stop, Billups immediately turned the ball over. He then missed a 3-pointer and another jumper on two of the next three possessions. That turnover and missed three killed Detroit’s chances. Either possession would have Boston under pressure, something they have not responded to well on the road late in games. Blame Saunders for looking to Billups late in the game after sitting most of the way, blame Billups for not hitting the big shot, and perhaps not looking for teammates that had better nights than he.

Prince flat out stunk. No injuries, no excuses. Detroit’s equivalent to Manu Ginobili, Prince is a spark plug that can create matchup nightmares for opponents, and cause disruptions on defense. He only caused nightmares for his own team. 2-11 shooting and four rebounds. While role player performance separates teams, its assumed that the stars will play well. Neither Billups nor Prince stepped up.

Credit Boston for hitting a few big shots, and more importantly grabbing six offensive boards in the fourth quarter. Each time Detroit made them sweat, someone stepped up with a big shot – even Ray Allen found the net late in the game. The offensive rebounds though, broke Detroit’s back. When you are trying to come back from a double-digit deficit against a quality team, nothing is more deflating than making a defensive stop and not grabbing the rebound. Getting two consecutive stops is extremely difficult. More importantly, Boston ran more precious seconds off the clock each time.

And how can Piston fans boo throughout this game. The crowd marred a potentially historic night with the city hosting the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA playoffs, and a baseball game simultaneously. Detroit’s performance warranted the boo birds after the game, or late in the fourth, but booing the team in the first half and third quarter, the game still within reach, is unacceptable. A day ago they controlled the series thanks to a big road win. Talk about fickle.

Monday night Detroit is back up against the wall, a familiar position. They trailed Philadelphia 2-1 in the first round before three straight wins. If Billups is hurt he needs to sit, if not he needs to come to play like a star. It wouldn’t hurt if Rasheed Wallace stepped up and called for the ball in a big spot either. He plays good, but not up to his potential. Wallace is capable of taking over a game offensively, what better time than now.

Lebron Needs Help

Classic sudden death playoff games break one of two ways, the game creates a legend or a legend makes the game. Sunday, one legend and one superstar made the game. Forget Bird vs. Wilkins from ’88, go back to Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones in 1963 to find the only other time two players scored over 40 points in a Game Seven. Add Lebron and Pierce to the annals after an epic duel in Boston.

James outdid Pierce with 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds to 41, 5, and 4, but the Pierces’ Celtics got the best of the Cavs 97-92 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a game featuring two stars at their best, a 38-year-old forgotten role player made the biggest shot, and was the difference in the game. PJ Brown buried an open jumper with 1:21 left to give Boston a three-point cushion. Off a timeout, Delonte West, the only other Cav to show up Sunday, missed a good look at a three, turning the game into a Celtic foul shooting contest for the final minute. Brown, who didn’t even play in the NBA until February this season, finished with 10 points, including six in the final stanza.

He took a few bad shots, maybe fell in love with the three ball too much in the fourth, should have pulled up before his last ill-fated drive to the basket, and as Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, missed a boxout on the crucial jump ball late in the game. However, Lebron can answer any criticism levied toward him with a simple question – where’s the help?

The 23-year-old now knows how Jordan felt his first 5 or 6 years in the league, except there is no Pippen on this team. Cleveland stinks. It’s a disgrace what surrounds Lebron. Forget 2010, he may be better off on the Knicks right now, and that’s saying something. Ben Wallace is no longer a rebounding and defensive monster, yet remains an offensive liability. Sczerbiak did not score. Did Ilgauskas even play in the second half? Many people forget the Cavs actually have two former Number 1 draft picks on the team. Clearly the GM who took Joe Smith is no longer employed. Explain to me how Anderson Varejeo and Sasha Pavlovic held out for new contracts before the season. Danny Ferry could dig into the D-League for better talent, or find a sharp-shooter like Boston’s Eddie House in free agency. Though spotty at times, West gave a valiant effort, the only other Cav that actually played like he wanted to win at all costs.

Without help, James almost did it all by himself. Scoring aside, he came up with two big steals in the second half, the second leading to a dunk that trimmed the Celtic lead to 89-88, the closest Cleveland would get. He skied for clutch rebounds after painfully watching former rebound legend fail to box out, allowing Boston to tip back offensive rebounds and maintain possession, forcing Cleveland to get multiple defensive stops.

In the press conference, James intimated the team needs to improve. He handled it with class, shouldering the blame, giving credit to Pierce, critiquing his own game and where it needs to improve. The bottom line is clear, get this man help. Ferry has cap flexibility, he has the biggest star in the world to entice players to come, get it done. At this point, forget finding a Pippen, just improve this make the rest of this team NBA-caliber.

Boston again escaped, this time hiding behind Pierce. Ray Allen was admitted to the Witness Protection Program, only to emerge for a few late-game foul shots. Garnett played decent, but 13 points, 13 rebounds hardly says Big Ticket. If Tim Duncan puts those numbers up in Game 7 tonight, he’ll be killed and the Spurs will lose. To my surprise, Rajon Rondo stepped up with a solid game, enough to keep playoff vet Sam Cassell glued to the bench, though Cassell’s putrid performance in this series also contributed to that.

8-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. No team who played decisive games in the first two rounds ever won the NBA title. The Celtics need to shape up immediately, or this dream season will end. Detroit will get a game in Boston, in fact they will get one of the first two. That’s what the Pistons do. Billups is rested, Lebron is out of the way, Detroit is ready. If Boston intends to advance, the Celtics have to show up on the road. 69 points for a 66-win team is unacceptable, especially in a Game Six against a mediocre, at best, defensive team. Garnett’s legacy is at stake. Rewind before the season, skeptics quietly questioned that none of Boston’s Big Three had advanced to the NBA Finals, and none was known for knocking down the big shot. Well, no need to wonder quietly anymore. Pierce answered the bell, Allen had his bell rung, and the verdict is out on KG. He has not played like a Hall of Famer, has not looked for the ball with the game on the line, and has not stepped up when he had his chance. The season ends in six games unless that changes.

For the Record: NBA Playoff Picks

This year’s NBA playoffs has it all – except the Knicks. Los Angeles and Boston at the forefront, All-Stars galore, to go along with the most competitive conference in league history. Lakers-Celtics is the NBA’s dream matchup, David Stern TV ratings and dollar signs float through his head just thinking about it. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, I envision a repeat of 1988, not 1986. Enough hype, let’s get it on.

Eastern Conference

36 win teams do not belong in the playoffs. They don’t deserve to collect a playoff share, or even get the chance to pull an upset. Boston dominated the NBA – not just the East, proving it with a 22-5 mark vs. Western Conference foes. KG and company swept Atlanta in the season series, expect much of the same in round one – Celts in 4.

Rarely do 59-win teams fly under the radar, especially one with five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a chip on their shoulder after losing to an inferior team last season. Welcome to the Detroit Pistons world. Ripe with a rare mix of veteran leadership, playoff experience, and young energy off the bench, this Pistons team goes deeper than years past, though questions remain on how youngsters Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo, and Jason Maxiell will handle the playoff intensity. Philadelphia had a phenomenal season, outliving expectations. But Mo Cheeks maximized what he could from this team, a few late season losses cost them the sixth seed. Detroit’s advantage in playoff experience, and lock down defense should make this a quick exit for the surprising 76er’s, not a series with the intensity to test those Piston youngsters – Detroit in 5.

Dwight Howard arrived this season. No longer the next big thing, Howard is an almost automatic double-double every time he steps foot on the court, yet the key to Orlando’s ascension to 50 wins was Hedo Turkoglu. A potential Most Improved Player Candidate, the 28-year old from Turkey increased his scoring by over 6 points, and both assists and rebounds by more than 1.5 per game. Off-season acquisition Rashard Lewis teams up with Howard and Turkoglu to form arguably the best frontcourt in the league, one that can beat you from inside and out. Point guard remains Orlando’s weakness, playing right into the strength of the disappointing Toronto Raptors, with a two-headed monster at point that most teams would kill for, TJ Ford and Jose Calderon. After emerging to win the Atlantic last season, Toronto regressed, falling apart when an injury forced Chris Bosh out of action. Bosh vs. Howard is a great matchup of contrasting styles, power and finesse, but the Raptors surrounding cast does not play tough and does not match up with Orlando – Magic in 6.

There are some things you don’t do, then just shake your head when someone does it. DeShawn Stevenson went there. He called out Lebron James. Mind you, this is not Kobe or Duncan making statements, championship rings to back them up, this is DeShawn Stevenson. Calling the NBA scoring champion who carried his team to the NBA finals overrated, a brainfreeze, calling the rest of the Cavs underachievers though, on the money. If Stevenson didn’t light the flame, Washington enters the series playing much better than Cleveland, and they add Gilbert Arenas to a team that learned to play without him. Now, the Wizards must beware of the King taking out his frustration and single-handedly winning this series. Before Stevenson, Washington in 6, now – Cavs in 7.

A two horse race all season, its only fitting the conference championship comes down to Detroit and Boston. The Celtics bring the star power – KG, Pierce, and Allen – with a surprisingly dominant defense and home court. After failing to reach the Finals each of the past two seasons Detroit is on a mission to get back. None of the Celts stars have played big in a big game yet, Detroit’s have. They want the big shot. Point guard is the difference, while Rajon Rondo exceeded expectations, he’s not Chauncey Billups. That matchup will be the difference in this classic series – Detroit in 7.

Western Conference

It happened last season, the eight seed knocking off the top seed in the West, this year only 6 wins separate the two, could it happen again? Not unless Denver suddenly learns how to play defense. Kobe has the running mate he begged for in Pau Gasol, a legit All-Star who fit right into the Lakers system like a glove. Hidden as a third option, don’t underestimate Lamar Odom, an immense talent that quietly averaged a double-double. Odom creates match-up problems for opponents, and can take over a game. The Lakers won’t need him to do that in Round One – LA in 5.

Rarely is the second-seed viewed as an underdog in the opening series, especially one that boasts an MVP candidate. Not quite the underdog in Vegas, a Hornets first round exit would still surprise few. The knock on them, never been there before. Well, Utah’s current cast never did it before last season, and ran to the conference finals. I’m not saying New Orleans won’t pay some playoff dues before contending for the title, but they deserve the second seed and will live up tot that expectation. Chris Paul dominated Jason Kidd all season, the only addition to a Dallas team that choked away the NBA Finals and a first-round series the previous two seasons. The Kidd trade did not provide the big lift a struggling Dallas team needed. Nowitzki injury aside, Dallas was inconsistent all season, with and without Kidd or Nowitzki. They have gaping holes on defense, in the post, and despite their mid-season acquisition, a mismatch at point guard in this series. Byron Scott would love to send Kidd crawling home four years after the outspoken point guard helped get Scott fired in New Jersey – NO in 6.

A heavyweight tussle made for the conference finals, not the first round. Forget the build up and hype, we all know the history between San Antonio and Phoenix by now, we know all the major players, buckle up for a classic. Amare Stoudemire played as good as anyone in the NBA after the Shaq acquisition freed him up on both ends of the court, the Spurs need to find a way to contain him off the pick and roll with Nash to slow down the Suns offensively. Duncan will play big, he always does in the playoffs, San Antonio needs a healthy Manu Ginobili. The lanky Argentine posted career numbers coming off the bench most of the season. A game changer on both ends of the floor, Ginobili makes the plays that win playoff games, a steal, a driving score in the fourth, he does it when it counts most. Expect a fierce battle, the stars will shine, Manu will rise – Spurs in 7.

Somehow, Houston managed to win 22 straight games, mostly without Yao Ming, surely earning Rick Adelman a few coach of the year votes. In this crazy season out West, Utah is seeded fourth, yet Houston holds home court, where they lost to Utah in a first round Game 7 last year. Despite averaging 28.5 ppg in the post-season, the inevitable question – Can Tracy McGrady win a playoff series – comes up, as if McGrady is the reason his team loses each year. Without Yao, McGrady showed signs of slowing down late in the season, hampered by a shoulder injury. Already missing point guard Rafer Alston for the first two games, Houston needs not only a healthy T-Mac, but possibly a herculean effort from McGrady to overcome a talented Jazz squad. Pencil in 3 almost automatic home wins for Utah, 37-4 in Salt Lake this year, Boozer and Williams will get at least one in Houston – Utah in 6.

After my don’t underestimate New Orleans speech, I give them little to no chance in the second round against San Antonio, to whom home court advantage makes little difference. LA and Utah has the makings of a classic, as do most series out West. When two teams are so closely matched, go with the best player on the court, in this case Kobe Bryant. On paper, you can argue the Spurs will lose each of these series, but they are the champs – five times to be exact – until beaten. Spurs in 6.

One question, will any team coming out of the West have enough in the tank when the Finals rolls around? The Spurs have an older team, having to go through Phoenix, New Orleans, and LA, in what expects to be three hard fought series may leave them out of gas in the finals. Detroit will have revenge on their mind, both on the critics who buried them after last season and on the Spurs who ended their chance to repeat in 2005. Lost in the Western Conference hype this season, nobody realizes how good Detroit and Boston actually are, the world will see in the finals – Detroit in 7.