Green: The business of sports

Feb 16, 2010, 9:11 PM | Updated: Jan 14, 2011, 4:24 pm

We are often reminded that professional sports are a business. Everyone involved wants to make as much money as they can, and that is generally how things go.

But, while most people are not afraid to bash players when they ask for more money or make decisions based solely on finances, few seem to look at the owners when they make similar decisions.

Case in point: Your Phoenix Suns.

The Suns have a good record, yet sit in the 7th spot of the Western Conference. There are plenty of trade rumors and speculation circulating around the team, but one thing that is certain is two-time League MVP Steve Nash is again playing at an MVP level. And that, my friends, is why he should be traded.

Don’t get me wrong, Nash is still an excellent player who is helping this team win games. He has his deficiencies, but the team would be significantly worse without him. The same things, actually, could be said about Amare Stoudemire, the one who is actually on the trade block. But while the team may in fact send Stoudemire packing, there is no chance Nash will endure the same fate.

Not that I would be excited to see Nash go. Quite the contrary, he is an exciting player to watch and a good guy to root for. But as a fan my interest is in the success of the team, and for the Suns to get to where we all want them to go they will need to make a tough, and likely, unpopular decision. But the Suns need to rebuild, and at 36 years old Nash could be the final piece of a championship puzzle somewhere else, instead of an aging asset in Phoenix. The Suns would surely get good offers if they put Nash on the trade block.

That trading Nash would be such a disaster at the ticket office is precisely why the Suns will not even entertain the thought. Unless the 14-year-pro wanted out, today’s tough economy almost demands that the Suns to do everything in their power to keep the fans happy and coming to games.

But one need not go any farther than across the street from the US Airways Center to see how making decisions based on fan support can come back to bite you.

It wasn’t long ago when Eric Byrnes, the popular outfielder for the Diamondbacks, was facing free agency. Just one season after letting fan-favorite Luis Gonzalez leave (absolutely the right decision) the Diamondbacks felt it would be too costly to let Byrnes depart as a free agent. Looking past the fact that, up until that very season, Byrnes had been nothing more than a career fourth outfielder, and ignoring the statistics that showed Byrnes traditionally had a significant drop-off in production in the second half of the season, the Diamondbacks and Byrnes agreed to a three-year, $30 million extension, that they began regretting almost immediately after the ink dried. The fans did not pay to see a struggling outfielder on a bad baseball team, and instead the former fan-favorite became a popular whipping boy.

Not to say Nash and Byrnes are comparable players, because they’re not even close. But when teams are constructed in a way that is not meant to win as much as it is to draw fans, bad things tend to happen. Focusing on the names, rather than the production, rarely yields positive results.

Take the Phoenix Coyotes, for example. You know, that playoff-bound hockey team that still plays in Glendale.

When NHL legend Wayne Gretzky was brought in as a part owner of the team, the nomadic franchise finally had a recognizable name and face to promote. A name like Gretzky, it was thought, would help sell tickets and bring legitimacy to a team that had minimal fan support and was looking to secure a new arena.

Gretzky, however, took over as the team’s head coach before the 2005-06, with the hope that the greatest player in NHL history could find success as a coach, guiding the Coyotes back to the playoffs and past the first round.

Didn’t happen.

With Gretzky at the helm the Coyotes never won more than 38 games, had more wins than losses just once, and never finished higher than fourth in the Pacific Division. The team made all kinds of moves in an effort to bring a ‘White Out’ back to the Valley, but signing veterans failed and bringing along the youngsters didn’t work. Throw in the gambling issues that surrounded the coach and his staff, and the Gretzky era could not have gone much worse for the Coyotes. Fan support was non-existent, and it got to the point where the team almost moved to Canada. Then, a miracle happened.

With the turmoil surrounding the team’s ownership Gretzky was ousted as head coach and former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett was brought in. Not a sexy hire or big name, but under his stewardship the Coyotes have entered the Olympic break with 79 points and the fourth spot in the NHL’s Western Conference.

Did the team magically get better after one offseason? No. The team brought in a real coach, not a name, and the results speak for themselves.

Not that the Suns would be the only team guilty of hanging on too long, to the detriment of the club’s future. The Boston Celtics did not let go of their 80’s championship teams, and it was not until a few failed rebuilding projects that they finally got it right. The Houston Rockets won a couple of titles in the mid-90s, tried to hang on by adding veterans, and then stumbled all the way to the top pick of the 2002 draft; they haven’t been a serious contender since. The Utah Jazz made a couple of NBA Finals, did not win, and then watched as icons Karl Malone and John Stockton departed, leaving them with nothing but an empty trophy case and a trip to the draft lottery.

There is no guarantee that trading Nash would bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Phoenix. But, we all know the Suns are not going to win it all with this roster, and are not likely to collect enough talent to make another run while Nash is still an effective player.

The only reason to keep Steve Nash around is to keep the fans coming to the games. The fans will stop coming when it is apparent that the Suns are not an elite team – which is already the case this season. The Suns should start looking at how to get back to the contender status that they attained just a few years back, and moving one of the best players in Suns history would be a good start.

Adam can be reached with your questions and comments by e-mail here.


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