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The Small Market Reality

She knows that there are things that matter more than being in a big market. Like having hot cheerleaders.
She knows that there are things that matter more than being in a big market. Like having hot cheerleaders.

In October, 1991 the greatest World Series of all time was played. Both teams had been in last place just one year before. Both teams beat superior teams to get to the World Series. Then the World Series went seven games. Five were decided by one run. Four games were won by a run in the final at bat. Three went extra innings. The winning game was Jack Morris pitching 10 innings in a 1-0 win against John Smoltz.

How good was it? The losing team was my team, the Braves, and I still just smile in awe when I think back to it.

Too bad nobody watched it.

But that's the reality when small-market Minnesota matches up with small-market Atlanta. It doesn't matter how good the games are, how good the story is ... if New York isn't involved, then nobody cares.

* * *

I'm lying.

Not about how good the World Series was—it really was that good—but my snark about nobody watching it.

Everybody watched it. Game 7 had the third most viewers in the past 30 years. The entire series averaged the most viewers over the same time period. Think about that. Minnesota vs. Atlanta had more viewers than any World Series involving New York, LA, or anyone else. Everybody watched that series.

You see ... Once Upon a Time, we lived in a world in which people didn't really care about small vs. big markets.

* * *

Do you know what NBA Finals had the highest rating ever? 1998: Utah vs. Chicago. And number two? 1993: Chicago vs. Phoenix.

Now obviously the popularity of Michael Jordan had a lot to do with this. I'm not saying that millions tuned in witness for themselves that Adam Keefe and Greg Ostertag were actually on an NBA Finals team. But it's still so interesting that the top Finals rating didn't go to 1991: Chicago and LA—Michael Jordan in his zenith against Magic Johnson still in his prime.

Seriously, how on earth could a Finals involving freaking Phoenix or Utah outrate Chicago vs. LA? Maybe it's because the players, the storylines, and the quality of the actual games mattered more than the market size of the teams.

More after the jump.

There are all sorts of funny quirks when you look at NBA Finals ratings. 1994, Houston vs. New York was the lowest rated finals of the 90's. Get rid of New York, put in Orlando and the ratings jumped the next year. Even though Houston/New York was actually a competitive series.

All this makes me wonder where the current obsession about small markets and big markets came from. When the Jazz swept the Shaqkobe Lakers in 1998, did anyone go to the water cooler at work the next day, shaking his head, muttering "boy, David Stern's not going to be happy with the ratings of this NBA Finals"? Anyone? Was it even an issue? Did anyone* care?

*By "anyone," I mean anyone legitimately human and not some deranged LakerFanZombie.

Contrast that with the comments all over ESPN's message boards in the second round of last year's playoffs—when the Spurs looked unbeatable and the Heat seemed to be falling over dead to the Pacers. I saw a lot of "Pacers vs. Spurs: David Stern's worst nightmare" kind of drivel. And I know the ratings of that hypothetical series would have been worse ... by why does it matter so much these days? Personally, I would have loved that Finals.

Why does this stuff matter now?

The obsession isn't just involving ratings, though. It reaches its fever pitch in free agent discussions: so-and-so would NEVER go to small market Milwaukee or Charlotte or ... of course ... Utah. When I wrote about the Jazz glut of 2013 expiring contracts, and I wrote about what it looked like (a team gutting the roster for a huge push for free agent superstars) ... even though that was just one part, and even though I never said the big guys would come, there were a lot of commenters tripping over each over to proclaim most loudly how the superstars wouldn't even answer a phone call from KOC.

We've become obsessed with this perception.

When Deron was on our team, there were many cynics claiming he was anxious to flee Utah for the bright lights of the big markets. And we hear it coming up again sometimes, in gloomy predictions that our C4 will flee as soon as they get the chance.

Which is funny. Because how many players have really sought a team because it's a big market? I can think of exactly three: Kareem in the 70's, Shaq in the 90's, and Melo in the 2010's. That's one star every 20 years, folks.

We have far more examples of teams either staying loyal to their teams (Stockton and Malone, Hakeem, David Robinson, Duncan, Nowitzki, etc.) or changing teams to find a legitimate contender (Moses, Barkley, Drexler, Garnett, etc.) or just going for the highest bidder, regardless of market size.

Think about it: how many free agents rushed to LA post-Shaq and pre-Pau? Did New York get LeBron and Bosh like it expected? How about Chicago?

Miami has become a sexy team ... but it's certainly not a big market like New York, and it wasn't sexy until LeBron and Bosh went—a decision based on a simple fact: only Miami had enough room to sign them both and Wade. Before that the only noteworthy guy to pine for Miami was Boozer ... and that was mostly for the lack of a state income tax.

And what about that rumor about Deron, Dwight, and the 2008 Olympics? That rumor that makes all Jazzdom cry out "he was going to leave us no matter what"? Well, they didn't muse about joining up in New York or LA. They supposedly thought about ... Orlando. The same small-market team that big-market Shaq was so eager to flee.

* * *

And yet we obsess about it. We curl up and whimper, convinced we're doomed because nobody wants to come to Utah. And everyone here must hate it and want to leave.

Except they don't. We have a long list of players who enjoyed playing here. We've had players upset to not be brought back (Bryon Russell and Donyell Marshall come to mind). The team has had salary cap space to pursue big free agents exactly twice: 2003 and 2004. The team struck out in 2003 ... but only because the guys they pursued were restricted and retained. In 2004 we got the guys the team wanted, no sweat. And I invite you to look over the list of free agents in those years: Those were fairly barren years, and we went after and signed some of the best of the lot. Both in 2003 and in 2004.

* * *

No, the market size matters less than we think. It still has an effect, of course. It's market size that got the Lakers their obscene television contract ... and that lets them pretend the luxury tax doesn't exist. And Jazz fans all know the "You go live in Utah" stuff that occasionally pops up.

But let's think about things rationally. Remember when Deron said he tried to convince other good players to come to Utah? Remember how none ever came, and that's why Utah will never win a championship? Have you ever looked at the Jazz salary situations those years? Nobody came because the Jazz were pushing the luxury tax; they didn't have cap space to make offers to anybody.

At some point we need to accept that it actually matters less than is supposed. That there are plenty of players—great, talented players—to whom loyalty and familiarity, to whom the chance to consistently win, and to whom just the glitter of a big paycheck matter far, far, far more than the big market.

* * *

So, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, and Enes Kanter ... here's to you. Here's to you on the Jazz for your entire careers. Here's to a dozen runs deep into the playoffs because you care about bigger things than the bright lights of New York.

And here's to the rest of our guys: to Paul and Al, to Earl and Jamaal, to Jeremy and Marv and Randy and Mo. Let's celebrate and be honest: just like the C4, every single one of them will be here on our team as long as it is important enough to Greg and Kevin to keep them here.

And here's to all the players out there who will look at an offer from Utah and seriously consider coming to our team. They'll come because they think our team has winning pieces. They'll come because we can give them the biggest paycheck. And they'll want to stay because it's a great team to play for.

And there's more of them out there than you and I sometimes imagine.