Why would someone who did well enough in high tech to run off to a desert island for the rest of his life want to buy a pro sports team?
Because I could. I had been a Mavs season-ticket holder through thin and thin and was at the opening game of the ’99-2000 season. It wasn’t a sellout. There wasn’t great energy in the crowd. And I thought I could do better. I’ve loved basketball my entire life. It was a dream opportunity, if I could get Ross Perot Jr. to sell. Of course, that was before I knew what kind of headaches and politics there would be. I wasn’t naive about the sport, but I certainly was about the NBA as a business.
For all the information about the Mavs available to me in the financial statements, there was no information from the NBA. It was a club that you were supposed to be fortunate to join. They set the rules, which included the level of disclosure they determined was adequate, and you either went with it or you didn’t. I wanted in to the club bad enough that I went with it. It was a period that was a bull market for rights fees, TV ratings, and franchise valuations. Everyone is a genius in a bull market. But the business of pro sports has changed in the almost four years I’ve been in the league.
What happened in those four years?
The entertainment world became more competitive. Movies started opening in three thousand theaters and became events. New sports were invented. TV ratings for all sports declined, went up, declined some. Most important, TV networks stopped increasing what they would pay every year and, in many cases, reduced rights fees and demanded more in return for what they paid. This hit not just the NBA but all sports.
What would you do if you ran the league?
I would be more aggressive in our marketing. To me, the Mavs and the NBA have to be the answer to the question “What do you want to do tonight?” We have a great product that is fairly priced and very, very entertaining. We just have to be far more assertive in letting people know. We do nothing to promote our big events and games, in relation to the film industry. We have to work to stand out, and we don’t. So I would be advertising anywhere and everywhere I could, promoting story lines, personalities, and the fun of going to and watching a game. Unfortunately, we only promote our broadcasts on the networks that carry our games. That leaves a lot of people who don’t know about us.
Isn’t the problem with the NBA, more so than in other sports, that individuals stand out rather than teams? Allen Iverson. Yao Ming. Kobe—dare I go there with you, since you said recently that his rape trial would be a good thing for the NBA.
Our players are more recognizable and as a result are in more commercials. That’s a great opportunity to build story lines. If you don’t put the stories, the personalities, and the rivalries in front of people, they will never have anything to latch on to. What is there that would attract you to a Pistons-Clippers game? We have to make sure there is something for people outside L.A. and Detroit. We don’t. My whole point on the Kobe thing had nothing to do with Kobe. It had everything to do with media saturation. We gauge the importance of an event, and its success, by how much media coverage it gets. Was The Matrix Reloaded a success? Was The Matrix Revolutions? Do we really care about Kobe or Michael Jackson or Laci Peterson or the governor’s race in California? Of course not. We follow them because they’re everywhere, so we have no choice but to pay attention. If the Kobe trial, no matter how unfortunate it is for those involved, is in the media every day, then we will pay attention to it. That will lead to attention to Lakers games and the NBA in general. That’s the nature of media today.