Small Market a Small Problem for the NBA’s Best

Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York: What do these four cities have in common? Besides being the top four cities with the most sports championships (138 between the four), they are also the top four cities in terms of market size.

Then there is San Antonio, home of one professional sports’ most decorated teams, the small-market San Antonio Spurs. In terms of size, the Spurs’ market is seventh smallest of all the NBA teams (number 24 out of 30).

So, how does market size affect a team’s ability to produce a winning product? Does it matter at all?

The Spurs four championship banners hang from the rafters at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX.(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The Spurs four championship banners hang from the rafters at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX.
(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

After looking up a list of past NBA champions, I found that of the 65 NBA championships won, 57 of them have gone to the top 15 teams in terms of market size. This leaves only eight times a small-market team has won the NBA championship—four of those belonging to the Spurs.

Coincidence? I doubt it.

There is a reason the top-four biggest markets are also the top-four winningest cities. Big-market teams offer big-market money and attract big-market players.

Take the New York Yankees: they have won a mind-blowing 27 championships (most in all of professional sports). As amazing an accomplishment as this is, big money in a big market provides a huge competitive advantage.

The Yankees 2010 salary was $213,359,389 (yes that reads 213 million) while small-market teams like the San Diego Padres‘ same-year salary was $37,799,300, a fraction in comparison.

The big-market advantages do not stop there.

When players like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, LeBron James, etc. enter free agency, it is common knowledge that their possible destinations are narrowed down to the top markets where they can shine and land that next big endorsement deal. No “superstar” wants to play in a small market.

This all seems a little unfair to the small-market teams, doesn’t it? This puts the Spurs at a huge disadvantage and therefore, being the number 24 market in the NBA should mean they can’t compete with the big-market giants, right?


Not many teams in any sport, whether small or big markets, have a winning résumé even close to what the Spurs bolster.

A glance at some of the highlights and acknowledgements in the Spurs prestigious history:

Not a bad list for a team on the bad end of the ever-important market size.

Mark Cuban, owner of the big-market Dallas Mavericks, cradles his money and smiles thinking of his ONE championship.

Despite their success, the Spurs cannot Mark Cuban or Pat Riley their way into greatness by throwing money around and hoping to win championships.

The Spurs have a more structured approach; they do their research. They draft better than any team has ever drafted. And they produce a likable product that keeps the community involved and supportive.

With teams like the Sacramento Kings struggling to keep their franchise afloat and on the brink of relocating Seattle, the effects of being a small-market franchise in a big market-driven league are evident.

Nevertheless, the Spurs make it look easy. Since their inaugural season in 1976, San Antonio has produced a playoff team in 32 of their 37 years in the NBA (this is factoring in that they’re a lock for this year’s playoffs as they hold the #1 seed in the NBA with over 75% of games played.) This is the least amount of playoff misses out of any team in the NBA.

There are three NBA teams with more championships than the San Antonio Spurs: The Lakers, Celtics and Bulls. Coincidentally, these three franchises land at numbers two, three and four  in terms of biggest market size (New York is number one).

I can make a list of names that would run off this page of the great players these franchises have had. Not because their talented management, it’s simply having the money available to do so.

Can we say the same thing about the Spurs former players? Despite all their success and stellar reputation, the Spurs are never even mentioned as a target destination for a high-caliber player looking to move teams.

Yet the Spurs have given the NBA its best 17-year win percentage in the history of the game and get treated like a high school freshman B-team, lucky to get a shout out in the school newspaper.

The brilliance behind the Spurs’ success has been management’s  top-of-the-line money management, timely trades and an unmatched ability to find talent in unconventional places.

There will never be a team like the one the Miami Heat have assembled playing in San Antonio. Taking on those types of contracts is just out of the question for the Spurs.

Instead, they have assembled their own “big three” with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and “Manu” Ginobili.

Tim Duncan is the only lottery pick of those three guys. Tony Parker was the last pick of the first round in the 2001 NBA draft and Manu Ginobili was picked 57th in the 1999 NBA draft (three picks away from going undrafted).

Needless to say, this is a very different approach than, let’s say, the Miami Heat, whose “big three” consists of the number one, four and five picks in the 2003 NBA draft. Or the Los Angeles Lakers, whose 2012-13 payroll is over $100 million and the Spurs’ is under $70 million. Yet, the Spurs own the best record in the NBA (46-14) and the Lakers are struggling for a playoff spot (29-30).

The Spurs organization has become a model of success to not only professional sports teams, but how to run a business in general. They find their strong points (like great scouting) and turn it into such a weapon that on years like this one, it beats even the power of big-market LA money.

Sports Illustrated cover announcing San Antonio Spurs as Most Successful Franchise of the Last 10 Years on June 25, 2012(Photo: Sports Illustrated)
Sports Illustrated cover announcing San Antonio Spurs as Most Successful Franchise of the Last 10 Years on June 25, 2012
(Photo: Sports Illustrated)

In an article written on, author Timothy Varner discusses the “Spurs way” on the rest of the sports world and how many try to emulate it:

“The Spurs are often quoted as the winningest franchise of all professional sports in the last 10 years,” wrote Varner. “With this kind of success, logical people look to emulate these models in hopes achieving the same kind of results by hiring (stealing) [Spurs staff].

Varner later goes on to discuss how the Spurs the first team to begin valuing character over anything else. They target players that will flourish in the system not only because of their specific skill set but because of their ability to contribute to the locker room.

The Spurs success is attributed to much more than strong recruiting. The organization is built around a community of humble, high-character people with similar goals and values.

I had the privilege of meeting R.C. Buford (Spurs General Manager) last semester in a class at The University of Texas at Austin. Me being the Spurs fanatic that I am, I had about three pages filled with questions I wanted to ask.  One response gave me particular insight into what makes the Spurs business approach unmatched.

Mr. Buford said that when a change is needed, the staff and some key players get together and make a decision as a team. This is not what amazed me, though. What I thought was particularly impressive is that Mr. Buford said “there is no rank” in these meetings. R.C. Buford is nobody’s boss, Gregg Popovich is not the head coach and Tim Duncan is not the face of the franchise. The lowest staff in the room has just as much say as Tony Parker or Tim Duncan.

I was amazed at the selflessness of this approach; some people in that room have every right to think they should have more say than others. But yet, it is truly a team attitude from the basketball court to the front office.

Tim Duncan, widely regarded as the best power forward to ever play the game, has taken numerous pay cuts to help put the team in a better position to succeed.

With leaders like Duncan, an ex-military floor general in coach Gregg Popovich, and a supporting cast that reflects these values, it’s easy to see how the Spurs approach is unlike any other.

In an article written on, author Matthew Yglesias writes:

“The Spurs’ organization’s top-to-bottom dedication to winning is incredibly stultifying. The star never tries to get the coach fired. There are no contract disputes. Nobody fights about whether it’s still ‘Tim Duncan’s team.’ Nobody’s eager to leave for a flashier city. The face of the franchise is on the last year of his contract and nobody’s speculating about whether or not he’ll come back. No other team even bothers to try to hire away San Antonio’s coach despite his indisputable track record of success … management gets it done.”

Small-market teams struggle to stay competitive in a big-market game. Yet the Spurs have found their own way of maintaining a level of greatness and have done it in ways that still have the big-market teams scratching their heads, only dreaming of emulating it.

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