Too bad Tagliabue can't play NBA way

December 02, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

In 1987, the idea was to expand by two teams. But the demand was staggering, the cities were viable and the commissioner had vision. The NBA went to four teams.

Charlotte and Miami for the 1988-89 season, Orlando and Minneapolis for '89-90. Nearly everyone was satisfied. No one cried foul.

This is a league that responds to interest in its product. This is a league that thinks big, rather than expand into places like Jacksonville, the nation's 56th-largest TV market.

Now, six years later, the NBA is ready to expand again. Toronto recently was awarded a franchise for '95-96. A decision on Vancouver has been delayed.

By 1997, the league might expand into Mexico City and another U.S. city, according to Phoenix Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo, head of the NBA Expansion Committee.

By 1999 or 2000, Colangelo said, another U.S. city could be added, giving the world's fastest-growing sports league a total of 32 teams.

That's a vision, that's a plan.

Little wonder that the NBA is enjoying unprecedented success, while the NFL can't figure out how to keep its marquee players healthy, much less a logical approach to expansion.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue described the process as "sensible" and "well-thought out" on Tuesday, but whom was he kidding?

His league just turned down a publicly financed stadium next to Oriole Park, baseball's answer to the U.S. Mint.

How sensible is that?

Tagliabue is obsessed with the NBA -- he lusted after Charlotte, and you watch, when the NFL expands next, it'll go to Toronto.

It's pathetic mimicry, especially when the NFL thinks it can be just as cutting-edge with Jacksonville. If Tagliabue was smart, he wouldn't follow the NBA across North America, he'd adopt its expansion model.

Indeed, the choices facing the NBA in '87 were not unlike the choices facing the NFL in '93. But, given four attractive options, the NBA embraced them all.

Today, Charlotte and Orlando are among the NBA's most glamorous franchises, and Miami already wants to move into

TC larger arena. Minnesota averages nearly 18,000 fans per game, but faced with a $74 million debt on its arena, reportedly is considering a move to San Diego.

"In retrospect, it was the wisest decision the league ever made," Orlando GM Pat Williams said. "When you look at the history of this league, it may be that the addition of those four teams was a turning point of sorts. So many positive things began happening at that point -- new energy, new markets, new buildings, a great surge of interest."

The process was quiet, orderly, straightforward. The NBA didn't care whether a city could sell out exhibition games. And it didn't require mammoth ticket drives as a show of commitment.

Oh, the cities provided new arenas, sold tickets on their own, filed $100,000 application fees. They needed to guarantee 10,000 season tickets and $1.5 million in electronic media contracts -- but only after getting the franchises.

"No question, it was handled right," Williams said. "They planned it well, they stuck to their time lines, they set up the teams to succeed.

"The expansion process can be very tumultuous, unpredictable, volatile. We've seen that in hockey and certainly in baseball," added Williams, who was part of a group that failed to bring an expansion baseball franchise to Orlando.

"Football was an absolutely unbelievable roller-coaster ride. Basketball probably did it as smoothly and organized as has been done."

And the NBA isn't finished. Dallas paid $12 million to join the league in 1980. The four most recent entries each paid $32.5 million. Toronto will pay $125 million.

The league did not expect to expand this quickly, but the interest from Toronto dates to 1986. Expansion plans were announced at the All-Star Game last February. Toronto was awarded its franchise earlier this month.

So simple, so easy, and still Tagliabue doesn't get it. He couldn't understand the uproar when the NFL delayed naming a second team. "The NBA just did the same thing," he said. "They picked Toronto, and put Vancouver off for two months, and no one has even sneezed."

The difference was, Colangelo described Vancouver's chances as "excellent" even as the NBA announced the delay. Like St. Louis in football, if something goes wrong, Vancouver will have only itself to blame.

One league plays its games behind closed doors, the other saves them for the court. Little wonder that one league is waning in popularity, and the other is basking in it like never before.

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