Commentary: Why The Nba Can't Find The Hoop

You know a sport is in trouble when its biggest news on game night is the absence at courtside of a team's general manager. But then, you could see Michael Jordan as just another no-show. After dominating the National Basketball Assn. for 13 years and collecting five championship rings, the new part-owner of the Washington Wizards knows a losing streak when he sees one. And we're not just talking about the pathetic Wizards, whose 25-46 record puts it 25th in the 29-team NBA.

No, it's the NBA itself that looks like a basket case. Two years after Jordan put away his Nikes, TV ratings have plummeted--NBC's are off 16% this year--merchandise sales are crashing, and attendance is listless. Worse, the sport is losing its casual fans to golf, of all things, which has its own media-genic superstar in Tiger Woods. On Mar. 19, in fact, more folks were glued to their sets watching Woods win something called the Bay Hill Invitational than watched a nationally televised game between the red-hot Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks.

For months, those connected with the NBA have preached patience. The league was recovering from Jordan's retirement, they said, along with a lockout of players that shortened last year's season. Attention tends to pick up around playoff time in April. And there is a changing of the guard, with stars such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing retiring or playing less. Says NBA Commissioner David Stern: "We have an enormous number of young stars. There is a period of adjustment."

The problem for Stern and his megabillion-dollar enterprise is that the league may face a particularly long and difficult adjustment. Unlike the mid-1980s, when Stern shrewdly refocused on superstars and marketed the game like a sexy sports car, the NBA plays in an ever more crowded market. Every dollar now spent on t-shirts featuring race-car driver Jeff Gordon or wrestling's Stone Cold Steve Austin is a dollar that might have been the NBA's.

BAD BOYS. The NBA, it seems, no longer knows how to lure fans. Expansion has flooded the league with marginal players and has wreaked havoc with regional rivalries. Who wants to see bad-boy players like the Knicks's Latrell Sprewell scowl their way through ball-hogging displays? Stars like Vince Carter are marooned in places like Toronto with middle-rung teams. Says Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon: "The product got diluted. but ticket prices keep going up."

But the NBA can rely on Stern, a sports-marketing genius. Supporters say Stern, who took a lot of heat during the lockout, may be a winner down the road. That's because he won limits on players' salaries, which should help keep prices down and could reduce the likelihood of players jumping from team to team. He also has flooded the airwaves with games, which could give stars like Carter an audience. And in his quest to spread awareness of the brand, Stern has opened an NBA store in New York, a 24-hour NBA cable channel, an NBA restaurant in Orlando, and has games beamed everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

"The owners have the utmost trust in David Stern," says Sacramento Kings owner Joe Maloof. "Yeah, we have some problems, but he's worked through them before, and we think he can do it again." With a year-old investment of $260 million in his team, Maloof certainly hopes so, and Kings attendance is up a bit. But Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo reports that no-shows have doubled this year. And in Detroit, sports radio host Steve Courtney says apathy about the Pistons is so widespread that when the team fired coach Alvin Gentry, he couldn't get listeners to discuss it much.

That means Stern and his marketing machine have lots to do. Getting Carter out of Toronto would help. So might the elimination of such perennial losers as the Los Angeles Clippers. And a playoff series featuring big-market teams like the Lakers and Knicks sure wouldn't hurt. But short of Air Jordan's unexpected return to playing, the odds of the NBA recovering its lost allure anytime soon are remote at best.

Onetime Washington Wizards fan Grover hasn't bought an NBA ticket in four years.