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NBA getting through tough times

Published: 8:05PM Thursday March 12, 2009 Source: Reuters

The NBA is awash in red ink yet Commissioner David Stern is showing the same confidence that Michael Jordan displayed while cradling the ball at the top of the key with the clock winding down.

Just like Jordan believed no one could stop his moves to the hoop, Stern speaks as if nothing, not even an economic recession, can undermine the 63-year-old league.

Listening to him, it seems inconceivable that only half of the league's 30 teams will show a profit this year.

Stern said league revenue was slightly higher, television ratings were "robust," and attendance was "holding even with last year in the worst economy of our lifetime".

"Television ratings are up the same way motion picture attendance is up," he told Reuters in an interview. "People go to comfortable places and sports is comfort."

It is hard to argue with 66-year-old Stern, a smooth-talking yet tough-when-he-has-to-be son of a New York deli owner.

He assumed the job as the NBA's top man 25 years ago when the league was nearly bankrupt and has effectively led it through labour strife and player problems both off the court (drug use) and on (fighting).

Stern is widely viewed, by players, management and fans, as the best commissioner in US sports.

He concedes the league will need to tighten its belt administratively and offer more group sales with discounted prices to combat the difficult economic climate.

"We're trying to run more efficiently," he said. "We're in the process of continuing to cut expense out of the organisation - that's what every business is doing - without sacrificing our two growth areas, international and digital."

Exciting season

The league, despite its economic woes, is in the midst of one of its most exciting seasons in years.

While many predicted another final between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, last year's two powerhouses have been pushed by teams such as the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers and the four-times champion San Antonio Spurs.

"We're having one of our best years, artistically," said Stern, who talks like a fan and not a front-office man when discussing the numerous playoff possibilities.

"The Magic, the Cavs and the Spurs are there," said Stern. "And there are some teams who think that they have what it takes. The Pistons are coming together, New Orleans, Portland, Houston. Utah is in the middle of a winning streak. Denver is having a very good season."

Stern was delighted with last year's final, which evoked memories of the 1980s when Larry Bird and the Celtics battled Magic Johnson's Lakers teams.

"Given the early predictions of our demise, as always is the case, we really could not have asked for better back-to-back seasons," he said.

The NBA is gearing up for one of the most exciting free agent classes during the 2010 summer when top players James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can test the open market.

Stern said he would rather see the players stay put, despite the speculation that James, the league's second-leading scorer, could be heading to New York to play for the high-profile Knicks.

"We have a system in place that provides for free agents to earn the most if they stay with their own teams," he said. "And that has overwhelmingly been the result.

"The speculation about where they're going is wonderful in terms of everyone writing about it.

"But institutionally we have been of the view that it's good when players build their identity and their familiarity with a franchise, so when you say Larry or you say Magic you're pretty sure you're talking about the Celtics and the Lakers."

China attractive

Stern said China remained "unswerving in its attractiveness to us as a major market," adding that he was pleased that the economic stimulus plan for the Asian nation appeared favourable for building arenas.

"Our relative market share in all international markets is so modest that even if their growth is cut in half (from the worldwide recession) we still have an opportunity to grow our business dramatically," he said.

Stern said the 13-team women's league, the WNBA, was faring better than the NBA these days.

"The NBA is far less profitable than the WNBA," he said. We're losing a lot of money amongst a large number of teams. We're budgeting the WNBA to break even this year."

He believes the NBA's best days are still ahead, although many teams, such as the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, are expected to lose millions of dollars this year.

"In difficult times we find new strengths," he said.