The NBA After Jordan: Is There Hope?

media exposure

One of the reasons for the NBA's tremendous growth in the '80s and '90s was that Jordan became a spokesman for the sport in places not thought of before. His likeness was more recognizable than any NBA logo and as a result, Jordan the pitchman was just as successful as Jordan the player.

Nike's considerable investment in the Jordan "brand" two decades ago was a risky proposition at the time, but the partnership has proven to be an unequivocal success, even to this day. The union broke new ground in athlete endorsements and since then, whether it be for sneakers, apparel, sports drinks, underwear, or hamburgers, Jordan has been at the forefront of some of the most memorable ad campaigns of our time. The unprecedented exposure that came as a result brought widespread attention not just to the advertisers, but to Jordan the basketball player, the Chicago Bulls and by extension, the NBA as a bankable brand.

The exposure that current NBA players get on the other hand, is not unprecedented. They are simply following the Jordan blueprint. They are not reaching new fans.

Paying LeBron $90 million to hawk sneakers is no longer a risk when you consider that the Air Jordan line grossed $153 million the first year Nike launched it.

move to cable

Before the 2002-2003 season, the NBA left NBC to ink a deal with ABC and TNT. At six years and $4.6 billion, the new deal gave the league more money but less network airtime, which may prove to be a costly mistake.

Here's how:

One of the factors that helped make both Jordan and the NBA so popular was that NBC ran two to three games every Sunday and sometimes five or six a weekend once the playoffs began.

The new deal airs virtually every game on cable, with just one game a week on network TV and a handful of playoff games.

While the ratings on cable are down -- the 2003 NBA All-Star Game on TNT dropped 20% from the 2002 game on NBC -- the bigger loss may come from network promos.

If the NBA was still on NBC, it could have benefitted from advertising during the Friends finale, which was seen by 52.3 million viewers and averaged $2 million for each 30-second advertisement. What high-rated TNT programs will bring in new NBA viewers?

Switching to a television deal that airs most games on cable creates the risk that the NBA could turn into a fringe sport like hockey. Amid a major plummet in ratings, NHL commish Gary Bettman just opted for the opposite deal. As a result, the NHL is switching from an ABC package that aired a lot of games on cable to an NBC deal that guarantees no money up front but includes a lot of network exposure.

changes in rules

More than any other sport, the NBA is a league of superstars. It has thrived when big names were able to dominate the game. That's what drew fans to Jordan, with his aerial displays and uncanny ability to get to the basket and score at will. Yet for some reason the league decided to shoot itself in the foot.

Beginning with the 2001-2002 season, the NBA instituted zone defenses -- meaning basketball is no longer a one-on-one game and three defensive players can hover around an All-Star like Shaquille O'Neal. This change was supposedly made to speed up the game and increase offense... in other words, improve ratings.

That has not been the result. Final scores in the 70s and below are becoming more and more common. And the stars that the league thrives on, like Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady, have a harder time penetrating the lane and sucking in new viewers with acrobatic moves. The league has made it even harder for "The New Jordans" to dominate.

final analysis

Since the departure of Michael Jordan, the NBA has been offering basketball fans a faulty product. Consider the fact that merchandising revenue is still increasing -- up roughly 60% since 2000. All while ratings and ticket renewals are falling -- season ticket renewals dropped about 15% compared to a decade ago.

Increased revenue in tandem with decreased interest means that the NBA is doing a good job of selling the image of pro basketball but is doing a bad job of selling pro basketball on the court. People are buying the hats and jerseys without watching the games. And the league needs to realize quickly that without the game, the NBA has nothing to market.

Question: How much has the value of the Chicago Bulls changed from Jordan's rookie season to now?

Answer: The Chicago Bulls were purchased for around $16 million in 1985, and were valued at $356 million in 2004.