Professional basketball is alive and well in America and, despite recent suggestions to the contrary, its future is secure.
This is not to say that the National Basketball Association is completely free of problems. The Inherent cyclical nature of sports will always affect the fortunes of any professional game, and basketball is no exception.
But reports of our imminent demise have been blown so out of proportion one might get the impression that basketball is about to follow professional lacrosse into oblivion.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The league is probably in the most stable condition in its history. Teams have settled in their cities and are no longer scrambling for new locations. Indeed, the New Jersey Nets, whose future was in grave jeopardy only a year ago, are, under their new ownership, enthusiastically awaiting their new arena in the Meadowlands Sports Compelx.
If future sales of franchises are to occur, they are likely to be more a product of growing investor interest than the need of present ownership to sell. This growing interest has caused the league to target the 1980.81 season for granting two expansion franchises.
The league is more balanced than ever; we have not had the same team win back-to-back championships in 10 years (although I recognize that the Bullets are eager to break that trend this year). Fan interest in relatively new NBA cities has enhanced geographic and division rivalries while expanding new audiences.
Despite the downturn this season in the fortunes of some teams located in our largest metropolitan areas, attendance has been only about 1 percent below the NBA's all-time record figures.
This, to me, does not sound like a dying sport. Why, then, have the eulogies begun.?"
The answer is television. Because the NBA's national television ratings have fallen, there has been a rush to cite the reason. One explanation that now appears to be fashionable is that basketball has become a "black" sport and that white fans are unable to identify with players.
I disagree. Competitive teams rpoduce enthusiastic, color-blind audiences. There probably has not been a better "road show" in NBA history than the 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving and George McGinnis.
A major tonic for decreased television ratins undoubtedly would be to have winning teams in strategic Nielsen areas such as New York, Chicago and Boston. Unfortunately, the NBA teams in those cities were unable this year to duplicate some of their past success.
Other factors may contribute to reduced national television ratings. National network telecasts represent only about 10 percent of the total number of NBA telecasts during a season, and it may well be that the great increase in NBA games shown on local television, cable and pay cable, has resulted in an overexposure of NBA basketball on the tube. We are addressing this problem, along with the general format for the presentation of our games on network television.
But TV ratings represent only one facet of the professional game. And while no one can deny their importance, ratings alone should not obscure the league's accomplishments and bright prospects for the future, especially when reasons for optimism exist around every corner.
The sport of the '70s, as basketball was called when teams from Boston, New York and Los Angeles dominated, has lived up to its billings. It's just that it has done so in cities such as Seattle, Portlant, Houston, San Antonio and Kansas City (where attendance records were set this season), along with Washington (which set a season attendance record) and not in such media centers as New York, Chicago and Boston.
If teams in those cities had made strong runs for their division titles (as they undoubtedly will again some day), overall attendance would be up significantly, and we would probably be hearing how the game was growing at an "explosive" pace reminiscent of the early 1970s.
However, NBA growth has never actually "exploded"; steady growth is a more accurate description. The explosive idea came about when New York, Los Angeles and Boston were enjoying championship seasons.
With scheduling changes for the 1979-80 season, each team will play its conference rivals six times per year. This will reduce travel and rekindle natural rivalries such as those among Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. It also will help promote new ones, such as Seattle and Portland in the Northwest, and San Antonio and Houston in the Southwest.
This year's crop of college seniors, which includes Larry Bird of Indiana State, Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas, David Greenwood of UCLA, Bill Cartwright of San Francisco and Gregory Kelser of Michigan State, is certainly one of the finest in many years. And who knows what "sleepers" will appear?
Clearly there is every reason for optimism and not fatalism. The NBA will be around long after the doomsayers are proven wrong. And we intend to make what is already a great American sport even better.