These NBA playoffs are some heady days for small markets. Which frankly, is a loaded term.
What is a small market? I’ve heard people refer to St. Louis as a small market. Anything not in New York, Chicago or LA could be considered a small market. But let’s be serious. Dallas, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia aren’t small markets.
Here’s a decent way to identify a small market. If it’s got one major league franchise, it’s a small market. Can we agree on that?
In the NBA, that means Orlando, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Portland, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Sacramento.
In the NFL, that means Green Bay and Jacksonville.
In the NHL, that means Raleigh and Columbus (excluding the Canadian cities, which are a completely different subject).
And in the MLB, that means nobody. (An aside. I know baseball would be a tough go in a virgin market. But wouldn’t baseball have a fighting chance more in a place like, I don’t know, Louisville or Hartford or Birmingham or Norfolk or Albuquerque or even El Paso, than say, being second fiddle in Kansas City or third fiddle in Tampa? I know you would be stretched corporately, but this we know. There are places where it’s not working. Who knew the NBA would work in Salt Lake or OKC?)
Anyway, the NBA is the hallmark for small markets, with seven of the 30 franchises sharing its city with no other major-league team. And you know what? Those teams are mostly prospering on the court.
Oklahoma City is in the Western Conference semifinals, where the Thunder will meet another small market, either San Antone or Memphis. Portland, too, made the playoffs and was just ushered out of by Dallas in a competitive series. Orlando was knocked out of the playoffs Thursday night and has been a perennial Eastern contender.
That’s five of seven small markets in the playoffs, with at least one assured of being in the NBA’s final four. That’s not a bad resume’. The only small-market teams out of the playoffs in 2011 are the Utah Jazz, perhaps the NBA’s most consistent franchise, and the Sacramento Kings, who have been woeful for 30 years outside of an uprising in the early 2000s.
Small markets have all kinds of issues. Can Orlando hang onto Dwight Howard, the way OKC was able to hang onto Kevin Durant? Good question. Orlando knows the disaster that comes with losing a superstar. It lost Shaq 15 years ago to the Lakers.
And NBA titles are rare for small markets. San Antonio has won four: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007. But Portland’s only championship came in 1977. The other small markets have never won, though pundits predict great things in the Thunder future.
How does that compare to the NFL? Hard to compare. The NFL shares its mighty national television contract, so market size is largely irrelevant in the NFL. The only market issue in the NFL goes to an owner’s greed. How much money does he want to make? Market issue is not a factor in competitive status, so long as the NFL shares its television money and maintains some kind of payroll cap.
But for the record, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been consistently competitive since joining the league in 1996, making two AFC title games. The Packers’ glory I assume you know about. It was in all the papers.
Hockey? Well, the Columbus Blue Jackets have made the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in their 11 seasons. So they stink. But in 14 years since moving from Hartford, the Carolina Hurricanes have made the playoffs five times, the conference finals thrice and the Stanley Cup Finals twice, winning one. So that’s a good franchise.
Small markets can compete in all sports. Be smart, be diligent, and good things happen. Doesn’t mean you can win a title. It’s always going to be easier for New York (see the Yankees), Los Angeles (Lakers) and Chicago (Bulls, though it took Michael Jordan).
The pending NBA labor negotiations will center heavily on market issues. How can the Kings compete with the Lakers? How can the Jazz compete with the Knickerbockers? It’s not easy. But the small market teams in the NBA are doing a good job now.