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Thursday, October 26
Wolves' loss not just on the court

By Darren Rovell

On a cold autumn night, three years from today, there might be no scalpers selling hot tickets against the Lakers. There might be no banners hanging from the rafters. And finally there might be only a sprinkle of fans sitting in the upper deck.
Kevin Garnett
Is it a reach to think that Kevin Garnett might leave Minnesota soon? It might be the only way to win.

Around town, few might don Timberwolves gear and perhaps only the die-hards know the sixth man. In fact, many passing by 660 First North Avenue might not even know there's a game inside at Target Center as the Timberwolves are hosting one of the NBA's best on opening night. This is what could be post-suspension basketball in Minnesota.

On the heels of Tuesday's harsh news of the $3.5 million fine and the stripping away of five first-round draft picks as a punishment for the under-the-table dealings with Joe Smith's contract, Timberwolves fans aren't exactly salivating over the start of the season and thoughts of a trying future.

It's a future that will likely be without Smith and more importantly, a future in which franchise player Kevin Garnett -- whose $126 million contract a few years back could be considered the seed that planted the scandal tree -- dreams of first-round playoff exits at best. But if the team can't be successful as the time on Garnett's stay ticks away, are Timberwolves fans a soon-to-be extinct species?

"This is very likely going to have a significant effect on season ticket sales," said Dean Bonham, president of sports consultancy firm The Bonham Group. "It could range from a full-scale fan revolt to a long term lack of interest and commitment by the fans."

Matt Freedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, said that a decline could be seen down the road, but he expects a packed crowd at the Target Center this year.

"If anything, the team is fortunate in the league's timing," Freedman said. "Their season tickets have been finalized, most of their individual game sales have been finalized and they will have a competitive team this year."

The true test will likely come around year three of the suspension, when the wins might be harder to come by without fresh talent coming in.

The Fine Line
There is a misconception that the $3.5 million fine, which is the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, is small change. Actually, $3.5 million could very often mean the difference between earning a profit and having an operating loss.

Although a team like Minnesota can gross approximately $800,000 per game in ticket sales, the net profit is what really matters when considering the amount of the fine. That fine of course, hits a Timberwolves organization that has one of the cheapest tickets in the NBA much harder than it does the Knicks, Lakers and the Rockets--all of which charge an average of over $60 per ticket. Since ticket prices are already fixed for this season, the Timberwolves just might have to up prices for the 2001-2002 season because of this.

It's definitely a Catch-22 though, as the product on the floor likely will be worse and fans might actually need to see a drop in the ticket prices in order to show up. -- Darren Rovell

"The fans have every right to be bitter of this," said Hadrian Shaw, a sports analyst at Paul Kagan and Associates, a sports media research firm. "Especially if it turns out that Garnett wants out, everything falls apart and the Timberwolves slip to the bottom of the league. It's what happened with the Warriors when Chris Webber left and they traded Mitch Richmond for Billy Owens and the fans still aren't back."

Garnett speculation aside, if Minnesota doesn't have a chance at winning championships, free cap space will do little to attract the free agent. That's why Minnesota takes the biggest blow by the loss of the draft picks.

"The five first-round choices are devastating to the team," said Roger Noll, a well-respected sports economist and professor of economics at Stanford University. "They guarantee that the team will grow weaker and become uncompetitive. Under a cap, one can't field a team without good young players whose salaries are suppressed by the draft system, because free agents are too expensive."

Welcoming the new big free agent is an even more unlikely proposition in Minnesota over the next couple years if this turns out to be the beginning of a fallout.

"It's not where players want to be in order to get the publicity and endorsement notoriety," said David Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group. "That's why it's tough not to have top draft picks to sign because from a fan's perspective it puts a tremendous burden on basketball operations not to make any mistakes that other teams can afford to make."

Comparisons to teams that have made big-time mistakes like the Warriors and the Clippers are a particularly tough pill to swallow for Timberwolves fans. Fans who -- in a city that rejected public funding for both the Vikings and Twins -- helped finance the Target Center to draw the NBA to Minnesota. And while the upper management plotted the illegal Smith plan, it's the fans that will potentially suffer more over the next couple years.

"The owner and general manager deserve the blame, not the fans, the corporations, and the public sector that have strained to make the Timberwolves viable," Noll said.

Not putting a good product on the floor could mean the slow deterioration of the NBA organization in the smallest metropolitan city to host four major sports teams. With the Vikings undefeated and the hockey state finally getting their NHL team back, there's only so many fans to go around in the 11th-biggest TV market.

"The penalty seriously reduces the team's chances of building and maintaining a competitive team in a market where attendance and support are already strained," said Mark Rosentraub, author of Major League Losers: The Real Costs of Sports and Who's Paying for It.

Bonham said that this "could send disillusioned fans over to the new Xcel Energy arena," which is where the Wild play.

And let's face it, things weren't all that peachy on the NBA front to begin with in Minnesota. In a study released last week by Scarborough Sports Marketing, Minneapolis came in 34th place in market-by-market fan avidity, as only 8.4 percent of fans in the survey claimed that they were avid fans of the NBA. Remember, that's 34th in a league that has only 29 teams.

While $3.5 million was the exact fine, Tuesday's news had some speculating whether the value of the franchise -- best determined by comparing recent league sales as well as projecting future cash flow -- took a hit.

Forbes, in their latest estimate of NBA team franchise value, tabbed the Timberwolves' franchise value rank as 21 out of the 29 NBA teams. Given that the 26th-ranked Grizzlies recently sold for $160 million, the value of the Timberwolves is about $200, according to Sal Galatioto, managing director and head of SG Cowen's Sports Advisory Group -- a company that secures financing for professional sports teams. That's an appreciation of $22 million a year since Glen Taylor became the majority owner in March 1995.

Most economists and sports business insiders said that they have to wait and see until they can predict whether or not this lowered Taylor's future profit. In years to come this fine and suspension might be the cause of dragging the Timberwolves franchise value to the lowest in the league. One thing is for sure, the cloudy future makes the team less of hot property should Taylor want to get out.

"If someone was to buy the team within the next year, there would be a strong case for buying low because you definitely have to take in consideration the ripple effect for the years to come on the labor front," said Carter. "If they make it to the playoffs, they probably won't have a good chance of going deep."

Bonham said it's safe to assume that "there isn't going to be a line of investors around the block looking to either buy or invest in this franchise."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for, can be reached at

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