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Entertainment, Value Are Names of Game

Jackson brings celebrity star power to the Lakers, but Buss will also be looking for more profits and fewer losses for his $30-million investment.

June 15, 2005|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Whether it's Hollywood or Showtime, it comes down to star power.

Laker owner Jerry Buss is betting that Phil Jackson, Take Two, will do for his struggling NBA franchise what George Lucas or Steven Spielberg can do for Hollywood studios -- put bodies in seats, even if the plot is convoluted and the leading man's star has lost some of its shine.

"Phil Jackson is a star, no doubt about it," said Ron Riggio, director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. "When you're talking entertainment, which is what sports is all about, celebrity clearly plays a part."

It is particularly true in a busy city like Los Angeles, where the media shifts quickly and seamlessly from Michael Jackson's courtroom thriller on Monday to Phil Jackson's much-rumored return on Tuesday and more than 50 fans who pay $2,000 a ticket for courtside seats recently petitioned Buss to put Jackson back on the sidelines.

Jackson's good fortune -- his three-year deal would make him the NBA's highest-paid coach with an annual salary estimated at $10 million -- won't necessarily push up coaching salaries when existing and anticipated NBA vacancies are filled in Minnesota, Portland and elsewhere. "It's largely L.A. and Showtime," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor. "This is a special situation that will only play out in Los Angeles, New York and a couple of other markets."

There are wild cards, including free-spending Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban, who is known to pay top dollar for whatever he wants, and former Laker coach Pat Riley, who is in line to earn an equity stake in the Miami Heat franchise as part of his compensation package. Sports industry observers, however, doubt that Jackson's double-digit salary will ignite a salary war. One reason is that Jackson owns the best postseason record of any NBA coach in history; another is that Jackson is perhaps most valuable to the team where he registered his last three championships.

Jackson did move into rarefied air Tuesday. He will earn three times what the average NBA coach takes home and would rank about 40th among the NBA's highest paid players. Buss shattered the previous record set when the Milwaukee Bucks paid George Karl $7 million a year.

To put those figures in context, Joe Torre, who earns about $6 million to lead the Yankees and take George Steinbrenner's calls, is the highest-paid baseball manager; Dodger Manager Jim Tracy in November signed a two-year, $1.8-million extension.

NFL coaching salaries exploded in 2003 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave the Oakland Raiders $8 million in cash and four draft picks to hire away Jon Gruden and sign him to a five-year, $17.5-million deal. Joe Gibbs subsequently was lured out of retirement with a five-year, $28.5-million package to revive the Washington Redskins.

Jackson's salary also dwarfs what Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- who briefly was a candidate for the Laker job -- earns. Krzyzewski reportedly earns less than $2 million a year as a college coach, although he works in a world where a coach's word usually is law, unlike the NBA, where coaches and highly paid athletes don't always see eye-to-eye.

Coaches also are seeking creative ways to bolster their overall compensation. In Kentucky, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Kentucky's Tubby Smith both earn a little over $2 million a year -- but also enjoy such perks as free cars and ownership stakes in race horses. When Nick Saban was Louisiana State's football coach, his contract guaranteed that he would always make at least $1 more than the second-highest paid coach. So if Oklahoma's Bob Stoops had earned a raise by, say, beating LSU for the national title, Saban might have earned a raise by losing the big game.

Contracts, though, aren't always a true indicator of what a coach will take away. Before hiring Gibbs, the Redskins handed Steve Spurrier a five-year, $25-million deal to leave Florida. Spurrier quit after two dismal years and is back in the college ranks earning an estimated $1.2 million at South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference.

Meanwhile, in soccer-mad Europe, Jose Mourinho recently stunned fans by signing a contract with Chelsea of the English Premier League that will pay him at least $11 million a year and even more if bonuses and other options are activated.

Jackson's salary could feed labor unrest this summer because he'll be earning more than twice what the average player makes ($4.9 million) at a time when the league is threatening to lock out players.

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