Since the debut of the Ultimate Standings in 2003, in which SportsNation feedback ranks every pro franchise in MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, the San Antonio Spurs have been a fixture among the top teams in sports. In fact, they have never finished below No. 3 in the overall rankings.
This year, after slipping from No. 1 to No. 2 in 2004, the Spurs have reclaimed the top spot in the Ultimate Standings thanks to an ultimate performance on the court, tireless efforts in the community and a cost-friendly sports experience for Spurs fans in every tax bracket.
Below are the Top 10 teams for 2005:
Note: NHL teams were not in the 2004 standings due to the lockout, nor this year's standings because there was not enough time from the start of the season to gather data.
Click here for complete Ultimate Standings rankings.
No. 1 - San Antonio Spurs
Last year's rank: 2
In San Antonio, says Russ Bookbinder, Spurs VP of business operations, ''You've got city government, the education system, the corporate community and the Spurs.'' And it's often hard to tell them apart. Between players, coaches, execs, Silver Dancers and George Gervin, ambassadors from the Spurs make more than 1,200 community appearances a year in one of the NBA's smallest markets. And the team works actively to connect its personnel to personal causes. While Bruce Bowen was taking public-relations courses at UT-San Antonio, he designed a physical-fitness program for kids. The Spurs helped bring the program to life by hooking him up with H-E-B, one of Texas' biggest grocery-store chains. Now Bowen and a giant paper-bag-shaped mascot named H-E-Buddy promote good nutrition to thousands of youngsters a year.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are feasting on the court and at the gate. GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich have assembled a squad that consistently performs at championship level without wildly overspending, and the Spurs have the most wins in the NBA over the past three seasons but just the 10th-highest payroll in the league. Sure, they've been fortunate to have Tim Duncan to build around. But they also know how to mine international talent (six Spurs are foreign-born), and they've stayed committed to players known more for hard work than flash. This year's big acquisition, Michael Finley, is no exception. Meanwhile, since moving from the football field-size Alamodome, which never sold out, to the SBC Center in 2002, the Spurs have built a Rolodex of 11,500 season-ticket holders and 56 luxury-suite occupants. Now they sell out every night, and the Spurs use their high-end ticket sales to keep prices low throughout the rest of SBC.
Fans love those prices: The Spurs keep 5,000 tickets for every game at $25 or less. They love the players' effort and commitment. They love Coach Pop, who has moved up from 72nd to 18th to seventh to third since we started our rankings. And they love chairman Peter Holt, whom you probably wouldn't recognize if you ran into him at a Rotary Club luncheon, but who successfully fronts a group of nearly two dozen corporations that own shares of the Spurs. Like owners, like team: a lot of local involvement without a lot of ego makes for winners all around.
No. 2 - Detroit Pistons
Last year's rank: 1
Last year's top-ranked team moved up in six of eight categories, only to be beaten out by the Spurs (sound familiar?). Minor reason: The Pistons hiked prices ($3 more for parking, $4 more for caps). Bigger reason: Losing Larry Brown led to a 33-slot drop in coaching. Even with this season's torrid start, Flip Saunders has to earn the love.
No. 3 - Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year's rank: 9
Club prez Art Rooney II looks for employees who exemplify ''the kind of player who we want to have here,'' guys worth waving a Terrible Towel for, past and present. The Great Hall, Heinz Field's exclusive memorabilia museum, is being made into an everyday attraction. Throw in the W's, and it's no wonder Steelers fans adore their team.
No. 4 - Indianapolis Colts
Last year's rank: 3
Owner Jim Irsay's deep pockets have made him very popular. Peyton Manning got a $98 million deal; Marvin Harrison ($67 million) and Tony Dungy ($15 million) got extensions. Next up? Edgerrin James and a state-of-the-art retractable-roof downtown stadium for 2008. Who says you can't buy love?
No. 5 - Los Angeles Angels
Owner Arte Moreno's club wins, and without gouging fans in the process. A $17.36 average ticket and $8 parking are small-market prices in a big-market town. And fans love that Moreno spends their cash wisely, importing an MVP (Vladimir Guerrero) and a Cy (Bartolo Colon). So while he and L.A. fight about the name, Angelenos have settled on one: theirs.
No. 6 - Atlanta Falcons
Last year's rank: 7
Easy math: Acquiring Peerless Price in '03 ($37 million) plus putting the team first and cutting him two disappointing seasons later ($5.7 million against '06 cap) plus League Man of the Year Warrick Dunn challenging NFLers to donate $5K-plus each for Katrina relief plus owner Arthur Blank matching Falcon-raised funds two-to-one equals fan loyalty money can't buy.
No. 7 - St. Louis Cardinals
Last year's rank: 11
Say what you want about popular Tony La Russa's beloved squad (''postseason chokers'' comes to mind). But the suits know how to build community relations and ballparks. Busch III (set to open in 2006) will have better sight lines and a more intimate feel. Better still: Fans dig that they won't have to fund its $345 million price tag.
No. 8 - Carolina Panthers
Last year's rank: 12
In 2004, injuries led to a 1-7 start, but coach John Fox's team still came within a game of the playoffs, endearing it to fans. Equally endearing: 2005's fast start and the way owner Jerry Richardson keeps stadium prices near league-bottom. Oh, and that he never met a tailgate he didn't like.
No. 9 - Atlanta Braves
Last year's rank: 16
What's better than 14 straight division titles? How about ending seven years of falling attendance? ''Fans noticed our commitment to them and have responded,'' says club prez Terry McGuirk. With gate prices 21st in the league and deals like $1 ticket promos, Braves fans pay a bit more than half as much as those at Wrigley -- and they're still paying in October.
No. 10 - New England Patriots
Last year's rank: 4
The priciest parking bill in all of pro sports ($35). But try putting a price on three rings in four years, or Tedy Bruschi returning eight months after a stroke, or a coach so humble that even the guy who runs his tribute Web site (allthingsbillbelichick.com) won't woof. Small wonder the Pats are a top-10 fixture. It's not all about the money.
See more of the Ultimate Standings.