February 5, 1999
(Organ playing dramatic music)
JIM COMPTON: Basketball is back, with all the smoke and spectacle it can muster, to launch, finally, the season that came within 40 hours of cancellation. The Seattle SuperSonics staged this free show as part of an aggressive strategy to woo fans back to games after an autumn without hoops. It may not have been necessary. Fans were lined up 50 deep two hours before the arena was open to see a free intersquad scrimmage. And inside, some got their first ever close-up look at an NBA. star, as players passed out coupons for free food.
PLAYER: Hey, little buddy. How are you?
JIM COMPTON: Owners announced that in the future, players will mingle more freely with fans, signing autographs and talking basketball. But sportswriters here said they were skeptical that players, faced with an exhausting season, could continue to hobnob with fans. The Sonics, who last season sold every ticket for every game, have renewals from 94 percent of season ticket holders, and management is working for another complete sellout.
JOHN DRESEL, President, Seattle SuperSoncis Marketing: And on opening night, we're going to be giving away 10,000 T-shirts, and we also are continuing only charging $7 in certain sections, and that's going to include a free hot dog and a coke, and a host of other things that we have planned for the city.
JIM COMPTON: If there was a common lament among fans, it was about the soaring cost of tickets. At box office prices, courtside seats now run from $100 to $650 at Sonics games.
FAN: The ones who really lost were the fans, because no matter how it ends up, you have this feeling that next year, we're all going to be paying for it. So now maybe if they can put a ceiling on ticket prices, the fans will be protected, too.
JIM COMPTON: In reality, this crowd is unlikely to see a regular season game.
WOMAN: Especially for families, I think it's very difficult and hard for them to get in. You know, for the whole family to go, we couldn't even begin to afford to bring our whole family here, so -
JIM COMPTON: In Seattle, sportswriters remarked that during the regular season, most fans of modest income can't afford to attend. "Seattle Times" columnist Steve Kelley.
STEVE KELLEY: The people in the seats aren't the real fans. They're the corporate people, they're the people who go to be seen and to see other people. In Seattle, for instance, it's going to be all Microsoft and Boeing and, you know, Weyerhaeuser and PAC-AR, and all those kind of people.
JIM COMPTON: Labor trouble had been brewing for the NBA since 1995. Mistrust had grown between owners and players over division of revenues, and new leadership in the players' union had grown more militant. When owners locked out players to force the union to accept limits on salaries, it was a high-stakes gamble that was to fundamentally alter the economics of the game.
STEVE KELLEY: The reason for the lockout, like all of these things, is that the owners were giving exorbitant amounts of money to their superstars and then saying, "we can't do this anymore, we can't help ourselves, we have to put it back on the players, the players have to be penalized for our profligacy."
TERENCE SMITH: So you're saying the owners' position was, "stop me before I give away another $10 million?"
STEVE KELLEY: Well, $100 million. I mean, you know, Kevin Garnett, Juwan Howard, those kind of guys, those kind of salaries.
TERENCE SMITH: Some recent salary deals were staggering. 20-year-old Kevin Garnett, an unproven player, signed a $126 million deal with Minnesota -- only Michael Jordan made more. Shaquille O'Neal had set the previous landmark with a $121 million contract in 1996. Future players, under the settlement, will be limited to $14 million a year. Seattle's "Post Intelligencer" columnist Art Thiel says the NBA settlement is a landmark for American sports.
ART THIEL, Columnist, Seattle Post Intelligencer: It's the first time a professional sports league in America has ever been able to achieve a maximum salary. The players were beaten back, but they are hardly suffering. The average salary will still escalate to the highest point in professional sports history.
TERENCE SMITH: But monster contracts are not ahead for future basketball stars.
ART THIEL: There will never be salaries like Michael Jordan's again. Shaquille O'neal, for example, will be -- will never make in the future what his current contract calls for now. Those are the kinds of restrictions they put on them. I think there's going to be some bitterness from some players toward the league, but there's also going to be some short-term bitterness between players.
JIM COMPTON: Hard feelings seemed to disappear quickly as practice started. Sonics center Jim Mcilvaine, who was on the player bargaining team, and the brunt of some harsh criticism from local media, was seemingly welcomed back without penalty.
SPOKESMAN: Are you all right?
JIM MCILVAINE:Yeah. JIM COMPTON: The settlement precipitated a huge scramble to sign and trade players. Two days after this practice, the Sonics traded Mcilvaine and his $30 million contract to New Jersey for two other players. If there was joy at the end of the lockout, it was among the merchants in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. Dale Carter was putting up the welcome signs as Seattle sports bars and restaurants gleefully prepared for the mob of fans on game night. This sports bar owner estimated his losses at $45,000, but said for once, parking was a little easier, and he had time to talk to other merchants.
BRIAN CURRY: I was surprised at how few people really cared about the lockout. And some diehard fans that we see, you know, in here on a regular basis were like, "I don't miss it a bit."
JIM COMPTON: The biggest single loser in dollars is the city of Seattle itself, which leases the newly remodeled Key Arena to the Sonics for about $900,000 a season. The city has not been paid for the 16 dates on which the arena was idle during the lockout, and it now says, "your prorated bill will be $390,000." Virginia Anderson, who oversees Seattle Center, which includes the basketball arena, says the bill presented to the Sonics won't come close to covering city losses during the lockout.
VIRGINIA ANDERSON, Director, Seattle Center: The $390,000 is related to an annual rent that they pay us on a prorated basis that they withheld, but really, our partnership shares in all revenue streams, so our losses are five times that amount for the lockout period.
JIM COMPTON: Will the Sonics pay rent for games missed? The president of the Sonics' marketing department said that's negotiable.
JOHN DRESEL: Now we've had a problem, obviously, a serious problem with this lockout, and it's up to good partners to work out good solutions, and we certainly plan to do that.
JIM COMPTON: Now the team will play 25 games at home, instead of 41, but in a concentrated season that will be an endurance test for players. Coach Paul Westphal says the compressed season ahead is daunting.
PAUL WESTPHAL, Coach, Seattle SuperSonics: Ordinarily, the NBA is a marathon. This is more like, you know, a 440 or a half mile. It's not really short, but at the same time, it's over before you know it, if you aren't ready.
JIM COMPTON: Now, I assume you're going to tell us the Sonics are a major contender this year.
PAUL WESTPHAL: I'm not saying that. I'm scared to death.
JIM COMPTON: The NBA deal should bring peace to professional basketball until the 2003 season. But now, baseball team owners, faced with multiple-year salary deals soaring over $100 million, are intrigued with the NBA's deal to put limits on paychecks.