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Stern Assessment

Shut Up and Cheer For the Team

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How appropriate. The very week that Charlotte unveils its new NBA team, the first game in the NBA finals scores a 6.4 Nielson television rating, a staggering 40 percent drop from last year's opening game. In the 21 years the league has been airing finals, no game has attracted a smaller viewership. Even the famous "O.J. Simpson game" in 1994, which was interrupted by O.J. driving the L.A. Freeway, pulled a 7.8 rating, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Consider this. Last year, after 9.7 million households tuned in to the Western Conference finals, NBC, which was losing $150 million per year televising NBA games, gave the NBA the boot. This year's finals on TNT were seen in 3.9 million homes, a drop of 60 percent.

But don't worry. The NBA is as popular as ever, NBA Commissioner David Stern explained to USA Today this week. Stern insisted that interest in a sport can't be gauged solely by ratings. Maybe in Daveland. But here in Charlotte, where we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the NBA a new arena, such trivialities do matter. If the Bobcats can't rake in enough money down the road to be profitable from TV viewership, someone will have to prop up the team when owner Bob Johnson comes begging for a contract renegotiation to make ends meet. And we all know who that someone will be.

It was encouraging that 7,000 people showed up for the unveiling uptown, scheduled for lunchtime when lots of people are already milling around. Trouble is, that's less than a seventh of the 55,000 who work uptown -- around 48,000 people wouldn't even leave their offices for a free pennant.

Given the NBA's shrinking ratings, there must be other folks out there like me who, no matter how they feel about the new arena, have to be wondering why we're doing this. By that I mean why we're really doing this, why we're committing untold millions to buy a piece of a league that's in a downward spiral.

Official explanations have abounded. The most popular was the vague implication that a new team and a new arena would somehow act as an economic stimulus. But it's been years since the city has paid anyone to do a serious study on the economic impact of an uptown arena and new team. Similar studies across the country -- when they aren't rigged or commissioned by those with an interest in positive findings -- show little or no impact when the cost of building an arena is factored in. City Council members haven't bothered to use economic impact dollar figures in arena debates for years. If you asked them how much economic impact they expect the team and the arena to generate in real dollars, they couldn't tell you.

Some of the conspiracy theorists who leave messages on my voicemail have suggested that this is all just a plot to increase the property values of The Charlotte Observer, Bank of America, Duke Power and others who own land uptown. While the arena will likely have some positive effect on property values uptown, development around Panther stadium hasn't exactly exploded.

It may be true that many of the "right people" will make money off arena contracts, land purchases and other government candy associated with the new team. Some already have. But not enough that it was worth council members risking their political careers by defying voters. And with the exception of those who will fill the arena's luxury suites, we know the struggle to bring a new NBA team here certainly wasn't about the fans.

So why are they doing this? I've discarded a lot of theories in the five years I've been covering this mess. But as I've come to understand old Charlotte culture, only one makes any sense to me. These people can't bear the idea that national radio and television broadcasters stopped saying the word "Charlotte" over and over on the air after the Hornets left.

When council members talk about this phenomenon, they call it name recognition, but it's really more than that. Since the city's never done a study -- one that city bureaucrats have told the city council about, anyway -- on the impact of the word "Charlotte" being repeated again and again before a shrinking national NBA audience, no one really knows what the "name recognition" a new team will supposedly bring us is worth.

And no one really cares, either. It's not how many people hear it that's so important to moneyed Charlotte and the members of City Council who serve them. It's that the "right" people hear it repeated over and over. This is, in effect, taxpayer-financed self-esteem for the city's insecure old and nouveau riche who want to feel important. The value of this isn't tangible. And I suspect it's something that will never quite be understood by those of us who, according to a city consultant's report we weren't supposed to know about, should be barred from entering upper level bar and dining facilities in the arena we're paying for.

I just hope it's worth it.

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