Taylor's Game

David Kern

Confession time: You won't find any criticism of the Kevin Garnett contract here. Perhaps you don't believe that the world's finest athletes should earn as much as the top entertainers, lawyers, corporate executives, and real-estate tycoons get paid during the course of their careers. Fair enough; I empathize with your nostalgia over a simpler, more intimate era, and would respect your decision not to patronize big-money sports. But if you've got an unconquerable jones to watch basketball played at its highest level, the Garnett signing is a morsel of tantalizing sweetness that will be paid for relatively fair and square. We're not talking about a billionaire owner running his franchise on the cheap, pleading business poverty, and threatening to move the team out of town if the citizenry doesn't fork over hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium. We're talking about a billionaire owner with 27 years left on a contract obligating him to stay in town, plunking down a terrifying amount of his own money to ensure that the Timberwolves retain the services of a charismatic giant who has a very good chance of becoming one of the two or three best players on the planet for many years.

By agreeing to pay Garnett $126 million--plus what have been called "very substantial" bonuses if the team is wildly successful--to play in Minnesota until 2004, Wolves owner Glen Taylor is making what is at once a huge gamble and a shrewd investment. On October 1, the night he signed Garnett, Taylor noted that his experience as a politician (he was a state senator from Mankato for years) prepared him for running the Wolves more than the business ventures that have built his fortune. At the Target Center, as at the Capitol, an adroit mix of luck and foresight and a massive, strategic infusion of money can create a perception so vivid that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the National Basketball Association acknowledges the twilight of the Michael Jordan-Chicago Bulls era, a golden opportunity exists for a select few players and franchises to move to the forefront of the most high-powered national and international marketing apparatus in professional sports. The 21-year-old Garnett, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager and already has the third-highest worldwide "Q rating" (ad-speak for recognition factor) in the league behind Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, will certainly be one of these iconic players. It's possible that dynamic 20-year-old point guard Stephon Marbury, who plays with unselfish flair and has New York City roots, will be another. And with Garnett and Marbury as a synergistic presence in Minnesota, the Wolves are likely to be one of the franchises the NBA banks on in the 21st century.

Taylor is smart enough to grasp the ramifications of this and bold enough to buy into it. He says the Garnett contract is meant "to pay off more than just on the basketball court." The point is to transform the Wolves into a "glamour franchise" along the lines of the Bulls, or of the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers in football, and that the signing of Garnett "may be the only time in my life I get a chance to do this." Taylor understands that fans in Harlem, Hibbing, and Hong Kong are going to be purchasing Garnett jerseys no matter which team's logo and colors are on them, so why not piggyback on that fame to enhance the visibility and viability of his franchise? (Outside of what is sold in their respective arenas, the actual proceeds from these sales are divided equally among all 29 NBA teams.) He realizes that, in addition to the league's promotional muscle, cutting-edge marketers such as Nike--which counts Garnett among their star clients--will take pains to ensure that the Wolves do not toil in obscurity. And he knows that if Minnesota does emerge as a glamorous, championship-caliber locale, other players around the league will accept below-market wages for the privilege of coming to play here--a 180-degree reversal of the gulag image that tainted the franchise as recently as two years ago.

How much bottom-line revenue all this produces is less clear-cut (although Taylor's own pleas of ignorance on the subject should be taken with a clump of salt: billionaires don't make $125 million deals without a thorough range of clearly defined outcomes). The Wolves' average attendance last year was 16,300; given the Target Center's capacity of 19,006, Minnesota could sell more than 110,000 additional tickets for their 41 homes games, not counting any playoff games (which are a significant financial windfall for successful franchises). Rates on everything associated with the Wolves, including signage and sponsorship fees and local radio and television contracts, will undoubtedly go up, and you can expect a steep increase in ticket prices, particularly on the more attractive seats and the luxury boxes, beginning next year.

There is also the sports-dollar inflation factor to consider. Huge increases in the NBA's national television contracts are widely expected to occur next season, greatly enhancing overall revenues and, by extension, the amount made available to sign players under the league's salary cap. Incredible as it may seem, Garnett's deal, like exorbitant contracts that have come before, might look like a relative bargain three or four years down the road, especially since he didn't insist on an "out clause" after two or three years, the way other blockbuster deals have been structured. And it's worth noting that the values of pro sports franchises have been increasing just as quickly as player salaries, particularly when an asset like Garnett is involved.

The potential risks in Taylor's gambit are probably on a par with the rewards. But if Garnett tears up his knee, or the Wolves can't sign either Marbury or Tom Gugliotta next year, and the franchise somehow goes up in flames, there is some integrity to the procession of people who will suffer the consequences. Most at risk are obviously Taylor and the other shareholders who own the team, and while that is entirely appropriate, Taylor still deserves credit for not trying to prefigure a way to stick taxpayers with the bill. Corporate patrons (sponsors and luxury box-holders) and individual season ticket-holders are also on the hook somewhat, but for the former it's a business expense, and for the latter it's a more expensive but probably higher-quality (even in a worst-case scenario) variation on the Wolves' first five or six seasons, when the likes of Scott Roth or Stacy King actually received significant playing time.

The most obvious downside to the Garnett deal is that higher ticket prices effectively gentrify the crowds at the Target Center, hindering access for middle-class fans and their children. But even here, there is a silver lining: The predominant exposure most fans have to the NBA is through television. The splendor of Garnett's game (and the notoriety of his contract) and the ascendance of the Wolves as a glamorous draw will undoubtedly increase their media exposure. It's not far-fetched to imagine KG and his mates someday being as ubiquitous as Jordan and the Bulls on Sportscenter, Inside Stuff, and the cable and network NBA games of the week. And if they're not, well, odds are they'll be some tickets for sale at below face value outside the Target Center, underwritten by the gutsy ambitions of Glen Taylor and the enthusiasm of people who willingly went along for the ride.

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