From Hang Time to Prime Time is a rollicking business history of the early years of the NBA's rise to fame and profitability. In 1981, sixteen of the twenty-three teams lost money, and most franchises depended on an $800,000 check from CBS to stay afloat. In the 1982-83 season, there were just seven nationally televised games. By the end of the decade, the NBA and NBC signed a four year $600 million deal. Cue the NBA on NBC theme music.
Did you feel a slight pang of nostalgia? Did you expect to see Marv Albert's face and see a close up of Reggie Miller and Spike Lee trash-talking? That probably means you grew up watching the NBA in the 1990s, and you will appreciate this origin story of the NBA and big business even more. Where did your t-shirts with caricatures of NBA players come from? How did the idea for your Jordan Come Fly with Me VHS tape come about? Who made it possible for you to watch Inside Stuff every Saturday?
Pete Croatto, through hundreds of interviews and years of research, answers a lot of those questions and more. I almost feel bad that he did all this work, and all we need to do is spend a few hours of our life to learn so much about the NBA in the 1980s (that is how all books work, you might say).
Nostalgia consumes us while we spend more time away from friends and family, and our before-times lives seem more and more like a fever dream of good luck, but Croatto's fascinating case study on the early days of the NBA brand is as good of a distraction as you can find right now.
David Stern may not have sat for an interview for the book, but Croatto finds many of the men, and women, who gave life to Stern's vision for the NBA. He also writes about how a Postmaster General turns into Sterns' predecessor and eventual namesake for the title trophy- Larry O'Brien. What will Louis DeJoy do next after running the post office into the ground? It is hard to be sure of anything, but I can guarantee he will never be the NBA commissioner!
Stern, who passed away in the before-times part of 2020, plays an integral role in this story (so much so that Croatto was peddling a Stern figurine for everyone who pre-bought his book). The former corporate attorney may have looked like an "English teacher with a middle management mustache--but passion and volatility came out like a fire hose." He was allergic to hearing about how things were done in the past, and he was determined to steer the ship towards unchartered waters. In the end, the water turned to wine for the players, the owners, and everyone in between.
I would call Croatto's writing style- Stuart Scott 1995 Sportscenter prose, and that makes the book more accessible and more challenging to put down. The book is also a case study on building a global brand without the platitudes and meaningless tropes of the latest business book you might find at an airport bookstore (I am just pulling at your heartstrings to remember leisure travel).
How did the NBA executives make deals? Well, Steve Mills, a former exec, grabbed the marketing directories for corporate America, and started a "desperate day of cold calling." Stern and other execs had a vision for what the NBA could be, even when the rest of America and its biggest sponsors could not see it yet.
How do you find the right sponsors when most of the America that control marketing budgets thinks your league is irrelevant? You pound the pavement and always have a sales trick up your sleeve. Stern would watch Monday Night Football, knowing that any advertiser on a competing sports event was a potential NBA sponsor. If they spend money on TV viewership, they are an excellent prospect for spending money on a different league where rates were lower. And then a lieutenant was sent packing to make the deal. Find the blue ocean market opportunity, do the hard work, and put points on the board. One Fritos sponsorship at a time (thanks to Tommy Heinsohn who helped make that deal happen! RIP).
I remember early in my years of entrepreneurship a lot of advisers talking about the importance of brand. Never devalue your brand. Your brand is your number one asset, they would say. Do not diminish your brand with discounts. But what is a brand if it goes out of business several months later?
Without the luxury of prestige and dominance, a business can hustle and try things that other brands can not. That is what can set them apart. And if they are not willing to experiment and innovate, a brand will die.
It may seem crazy to the conservative folks who have stayed in one job all their lives or work at companies with tens of millions in the bank. Still, there is a particular comfort to the hustle of being at the bottom (if you have a safety net to eat and get health care).
For example, when Tom Wilson, the Detroit Pistons owner, bought the team, only three thousand people came to Pistons games in a stadium that held eighty thousand. How do you put warm bodies in the stands? Promotions, giveaways, discounts, etc. There is no brand to worry about when the team is a few months from bankruptcy. It is that near-death experience that motivates any entrepreneur to try wild and new ideas and see which ones stick.
After the Pistons drafted future Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, they sold 20,000 tickets to Marathon Gas on the cheap "so the gas station could give them out with a fill-up." It was the freemium model decades before the concept existed. Get someone in the door for practically free, and if you believe in your product, you know they will come back. And they did. The Bad Boys started to win games and made money off the licensing deals NBA did with Salem Sportswear and Nutmeg Mills t-shirts, and eventually, they won championships and sold-out stadiums.
There are so many morsels of juicy anecdotes. Like a good Jeff Pearlman book, Croatto knows precisely what kind of details his audience wants. What was the price for a ticket to the first slam dunk contest? $3.36, of course! Where did the first three-point contest happen? The CBA's Bay City Bombardiers of Worcester, MA, tried it out, and then NBA took notice and implemented it for prime time.
It is truly an astonishing transformation the NBA made through the eighties, and Croatto breathes life into such an essential part of the NBA branding building story. Abe Pollin, the former owner of the Washington Bullets, used to take the train up to New York to lobby for the chance to host weekend games on the schedule, so he had a half-decent chance of getting people to come. Forty years later, the NBA pulled off one of the most spectacular sporting feats ever- a bubble that remained Covid-19-free. Not to mention a player's movement to address racial inequality and police brutality that rivaled any sports civil rights action in the last forty years. Take a break from the dreadful news, kick your feet up, and, like they would say on Inside Stuff, "get with the program," and buy this book!
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Going to the Internet
Croatto wrote about Salem Sportswear and Marvin Gaye performing the national anthem at NBA all-star game that helped inspire this book. They are both reading!