The National Basketball Assn., which was losing money and fans in the 1970s, is enjoying extraordinary success in the 1980s. Pro basketball, which opened its 43rd season Friday, is America's fastest growing spectator sport.
"People said that pro basketball would be the sport of the 1970s," said Alan Rothenberg, Clipper president. "I guess they were only a decade off."
The league, which grossed a record $300 million last season, has obviously made a startling comeback from near financial ruin. Only 6 of the NBA's 23 teams made money in 1981-82, but Commissioner David Stern said that 20 or 21 of the 23 teams showed profits last season. And Stern predicts that all teams will at least break even this season.
According to one NBA owner, who asked not to be named, the back-to-back champion Lakers grossed an average of $322,000 a game, which works out to $13 million for the regular season.
The Boston Celtics were second with a gross of $293,000 a game, followed by the Chicago Bulls at $250,000, and the Detroit Pistons at $240,000. The league average was $170,000.
The two worst teams in the NBA were the Clippers, who grossed just $86,000 a game, and the San Antonio Spurs at $78,000.
"This is light years ahead of where we were 5 to 8 years ago," said Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz.
With business booming, the price of established teams has soared. Within the last year, the Portland Trailblazers were sold for $70 million, the San Antonio Spurs $60 million and the Phoenix Suns $44.5 million. By contrast, Donald Sterling bought the Clippers for $12.5 million in 1981.
How much is a really good team worth?
Laker owner Jerry Buss estimated that his team is worth $125-150 million. A league source said that the team might have brought $15-20 million before the current boom. Buss bought the Lakers, Kings and Forum for $67 million in 1979.
Even new teams are bringing record prices.
The NBA expanded to 25 teams this season with the addition of franchises in Miami and Charlotte, N.C. Two more will join the NBA next season, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Orlando, Fla.
The expansion teams paid a $32.5-million franchise fee, an increase of $20.5 million from the NBA's last expansion 8 years ago, when the Dallas Mavericks joined the league.
The NBA drew a record 14 million fans last season, which marked the fifth consecutive season of record attendance. Attendance has risen 25% since 1980-81. And it figures to rise this season, with new arenas opening in Sacramento, Milwaukee and Detroit. New arenas are also being built in Phoenix, Seattle, New York and Chicago.
"I remember when, if you went to the game and you had a sellout, people went crazy and the players got excited," said Jerry West, Laker president. "Basketball is a relatively new sport. It's such a great game that people are finally looking at it for what it is."
In cities like Los Angeles, where the Lakers have won 5 titles in 9 years, and Chicago, where Michael Jordan smashes scoring records, the NBA has become the hottest ticket in town.
Courtside seats at the Forum, which sold for $15 in 1979, are now $250. They were scalped for as much as $1,500 in the finals last spring. Although seat prices went up $75 this season, there was no drop-off in sales. In fact, there's a waiting list three times as long as the number of available seats. One woman sold the rights to her seats for $40,000, and that didn't include the tickets.
Tennis star John McEnroe and heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson offered to do exhibition matches in exchange for courtside season tickets.
"(Going to Laker games) has become the thing to do in a town where the thing to do is very important," said Joe Smith, head of Capitol Records, who has owned Laker season seats since the team moved here from Minneapolis in 1960. Smith had front-row seats when the team played at the Sports Arena and he has held courtside seats since the Forum opened in 1967.
Smith pays $1,000 a game for four courtside seats, or a total of $41,000 for the regular season, not including preferred parking and a membership in the Forum club.
"I justify it by saying that I don't gamble or use drugs," Smith said. "I don't have a boat or a plane. This is it. But it gets a little harder to rationalize it every year. If I couldn't afford it, I wouldn't do it.
"Guys like myself and Jack (Nicholson) and Lou (Adler) are addicts. We're basketball junkies. We always go to the finals. I plan my schedule around the Lakers."
In an era when network TV ratings for major league baseball and the National Football League have dropped sharply, the NBA's TV ratings have risen 45% since 1979-80. Ratings for major league baseball fell 24% in the decade and NFL ratings are down 14%.
CBS, which negotiated a 4-year deal with the NBA in 1983, pays the league $43 million a year for television rights.
Cable TV ratings are also up.