The state of the NBA union is as strong as it has been since Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls. The brand of the Association seems to have taken no hit from last season's lockout, and it has arguably the two most recognizable athletes in team sports in LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Even though both remain polarizing, James has managed to fall off the list of most disliked athletes for the first time in years, according to a recent Nielsen/E-Poll survey (via Los Angeles Times), and television viewers can't get enough of the Miami Heat.
Game 4 of the team's playoff series against the Boston Celtics last season was the most-watched NBA game aired on cable in history (h/t ESPN), and the first game of the matchup against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder had the highest ratings of any NBA Finals since ABC took over broadcast rights in 2003, according to Forbes.
Even small-market teams can breathe financially again.
An ownership group in the Seattle area is willing to shell out $555 million to buy the Sacramento Kings, a team that before the recession was valued almost $200 million less than that figure, according to Forbes. Every sale is unique—especially when it includes a party from Seattle, which is still reeling from the loss of the SuperSonics—so this type of financial payout for the Maloof family, who owns the Kings, is not something that can necessarily be extrapolated to every other team.
But it is a vast sum for a property that seemingly has little cachet, and according to Forbes, the Kings are not alone. The average NBA team is now worth $509 million, and only eight are worth less than $400 million.
"The NBA is really firing on all cylinders right now," said Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, in a video citing "stars in their prime" and the revitalization of the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers as major revenue creators for the league as a whole.
It's been a tremendous run for the NBA, and the future looks bright. You're going to have a new TV deal coming up in the next few years that is probably going to double the current deals. Everybody that is getting a new local TV deal is seeing a huge increase. They're really doing great—particularly overseas. The NBA is hot in China.
Currently, the league makes $930 million per year from its national broadcast rights, and that figure—which is distributed evenly among the league's 30 teams—is the biggest source of revenue for most franchises. The next deal, which will be negotiated after the 2015-16 season, has been projected as certain to pass $1.2 billion per year and may reach $2 billion per year, according to Mike Ozanian of Forbes.
The local deals that big-market teams have been signing also speak to the plentiful new revenue streams that some franchises are creating. The Los Angeles Lakers recently signed a mammoth television deal with Time Warner Cable worth $3 billion over 20 years, according to Los Angeles Times. Sports Business Journal reported that the Boston Celtics signed a similar, if smaller, agreement with Comcast.
Meanwhile, a vastly increased revenue sharing plan among the NBA's haves and have-nots means that teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz can again start operating with wins in mind more so than dollar signs.
Sports Business Journal has reported that, once the plan goes into full effect next season, small-market teams could receive $16 million per year in a "staggering shift in league policy" that will redistribute revenue.
The new luxury tax system, which is much more punitive for teams that try to spend their way to a championship, has also evened the playing field, according to NBA commissioner-in-waiting Adam Silver.
“I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agency market in a way that they have been able to in the past,” Silver told The New York Times.
This claim has yet to be tested and may prove false. The penalties the new system imposes for spending are real, but while they put a virtual hard cap on lower-revenue teams—and even most of the bigger-market franchises—they may still not deter a few championship-hungry owners who see money as no object.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, for example, seems to be trying to buy a title, and if the Knicks or Lakers really didn't care about making money, they could balloon their payroll to make a short run at a title in a way that the San Antonio Spurs could never dream of.
Really, the only group of people that aren't doing better than they were before the lockout are the players. To end the standoff, the players union agreed to a 50/50 split of revenue with the owners after having previously earning 57 percent of revenue.
But with the average salary sitting around $5 million and only increasing by the year, few fans are going to feel too sorry for millionaires who play a child's game.
That isn't fair, but it is the world in which we live.
Yes, the league's owners cried poor and locked out the players to fortify their financial positions. Some of their dealings were less than admirable, but there was a serious issue in that the ability of both big- and small-market teams to compete economically was becoming unbalanced. In the eyes of the league, that has largely been corrected.
You probably don't want to know how the sausage was made, but the NBA, in terms of it being a collective of 30 franchises, is now on stronger financial footing than it has been in years. While the rest of the world still struggles to recover from the financial meltdown of 2008, the NBA is poised for nothing but growth.
Off the court, the league is raking in more money than ever, and the sums should only increase over the next five years. Even this, however, may pale in comparison to the rising popularity of the game going on between the lines.
The media attention devoted to the ongoing streak of jaw-dropping play by LeBron, both during his record-setting six-game streak of high-scoring efficiency and in his qualitatively more impressive exploits while helping the Miami Heat sweep the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a coronation of the achievements he has been accumulating all season.
Unbelievably, the national NBA story lines have not included the Heat and LeBron quite as much as would be expected while James, Wade and Bosh try to defend their title.
Mainly, this is due to all the rubbernecking in response to the train wreck that is the Los Angeles Lakers' season, but we are witnessing perhaps the best season yet in the career of a man who has been the best player in the NBA for at least six years now.
Think about that.
Kevin Durant, too, looks to be capable of becoming one of the best handful of people to ever wear basketball shoes professionally.
Before the season, questions swirled about the possibility that the Thunder would falter without super sub James Harden. Now, that seems foolish; it hardly seems to matter.
Durant and his running mate, Russell Westbrook, are too good for anything to keep this franchise from putting a title-contending team on the floor every season for the next half-decade.
Meanwhile, Kobe's attempt to begin walking off into the sunset after a storied career is not going so well. With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on his side, he was supposed to challenge for his sixth ring and have a good chance to equal his idol and mold-maker, Michael Jordan.
For Bryant, the realization that that is not going to happen—this season, anyway—has to be devastating. But as far as the popularity of the league goes, nothing could captivate the masses more.
It isn't just The Joker; everyone loves to watch the world burn.
Besides, nostalgia fans still have Tim Duncan.
The San Antonio Spurs have never helped the league much when it comes to being the tide that rises all boats. But as far as the game itself goes, the franchise remains the model against which all teams are judged.
San Antonio has been putting together potent teams for so long now that it is almost comical, and like the New England Patriots in the NFL, has become the benchmark by which success is defined.
The Spurs have missed the playoffs one time since 1989 (when David Robinson missed 76 games in 1996-97), and that one season was also the only time the franchise has finished a season with a winning percentage under .573.
Their lowest regular-season total in the Duncan/Gregg Popovich era is .610. Such a stretch of dominance is nearly unparalleled in the history of U.S. team sports.
While the era that this occurred in—one dominated by Duncan, Kobe, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki—is coming to a close, the NBA couldn't be in better hands as the elder statesmen begin to pass the baton.
There will be no vacuum of interest in the NBA as there was following the (second) retirement of Michael Jordan or the breakup of the Kobe/Shaq Lakers.
LeBron and Durant will lead the charge, but Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Deron Williams and Stephen Curry are more than capable of pulling their weight.
Throw in the new buzz surrounding first-time All-Stars like Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Brook Lopez, and the NBA couldn't be on more solid ground.
In America, many people wonder about the state of the union.
But when it comes to the NBA, there is no reason to worry: The league is as popular as it has been since MJ left, and the emergence of increasing revenue and otherworldly talent means that the best is still ahead.