When Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was asked this month about a rumor that he could be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, the future Hall of Famer acknowledged the possibility of his departure with a blunt assessment:
“It’s a business.”
How right he was. Business interests, not merely the team’s on-court performance, probably will play into the Celtics’ decision about whether to move Garnett or fellow star Paul Pierce — also the subject of trade speculation — before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, according to sports economists and marketing experts.
Many basketball analysts have called for the Celtics to trade one or both of the players since All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo tore his anterior cruciate ligament in January, requiring season-ending knee surgery. With championship hopes dashed, the argument goes, why not look to the future?
Trade Garnett or Pierce to a contender, get prospects or draft picks in exchange, and tank the rest of the season to improve the team’s draft position.
Whether the Celtics make a move before Thursday or not, it is clear the team is beginning to plan for life without its aging veterans. Any decisions regarding Pierce and Garnett will transcend hoops strategy and take into account all the tickets, jerseys, and sponsorships they sell.
It is impossible to fully quantify the business impact of a trade, but several economic indicators show just how lucrative the Pierce-Garnett pairing has been for the Celtics.
The current owners bought the team in 2002 for $360 million. By the 2006-2007 season, the last before Garnett (and shooting guard Ray Allen, now of the Miami Heat) joined Pierce in Boston, the Celtics’ value had barely increased. They were worth about $367 million, making them the NBA’s 13th-most-valuable franchise, according to Forbes magazine. In the six years since Garnett’s arrival, the Celtics have almost doubled in value, to $730 million, and are now the league’s fourth-most-valuable club.
In the six seasons before Garnett started playing at the Garden, average attendance there was 16,554. In the six seasons since, it has been 18,541, a 12 percent increase.
There’s a reason why Garnett’s nickname is “The Big Ticket,” though he also could be called “The Big Jersey Sale.” His No. 5 was the top-selling jersey in the entire NBA during his first season in Boston, helping to make Celtics gear the league’s most purchased, after the team’s merchandise ranked seventh the year before.
The Celtics’ popularity surge has enabled the club to command higher ticket prices. The team’s average ticket price was 21 percent higher than the league average before Garnett came to town, according to Team Marketing Report, a sports industry tracking firm in Wilmette, Ill. It is now 43 percent higher than the NBA average.
The windfall brought on largely by Garnett and Pierce only complicates the already knotty prospect of trading either one.
Garnett’s contract gives him the right to veto any trade that would ship him out of Boston, and he said over the weekend that he would not approve such a deal.
Then there is the surprising success the Celtics have enjoyed since Rondo’s injury, winning eight of nine games.
Even if they pulled off a promising trade, the Celtics would face new economic uncertainty. There is no guarantee new players replacing Garnett, Pierce — or both — would deliver comparable financial rewards for Wyc Grousbeck’s ownership group.
“When you’ve got players who have been there as long as Pierce and, to some extent, Garnett, there’s certainly a negative impact from trading them,” said Tom Baker, who teaches sports marketing at Clemson University. “Fans feel like they have a relationship with those guys, and they’d be disappointed to lose them.”
The Celtics front office is not alone in considering the bottom-line implications of a trade. Managers at bars near TD Garden worry that game-night business could take a hit if the team enters a rebuilding phase by moving Pierce or Garnett.
“If people perceive that they’ve given up on the season, there could definitely be a downturn in business and morale,” said Peter Colton, owner of The Four’s.
It is unlikely that a trade would result in rows of empty seats later this season because most tickets to those games already have been sold, noted Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross and secretary of the North American Association of Sports Economists.
“But between seasons, there’s a strong correlation between the prospect of winning and attendance, and also revenue for the team,” Matheson said.
Rebuilding the Celtics would not necessarily mean a poor outlook for next season.
A prospective deal sending Garnett to the Clippers, for instance, would bring center DeAndre Jordan and guard Eric Bledsoe to Boston in return, according to multiple reports. Both players are young — 24 and 23, respectively — but they appear to be developed enough to help the Celtics remain a playoff contender in the short run.
Ultimately, fans would shell out for a winning team, no matter who the players were, Matheson argued.
But Baker is not so sure. A fan of the men’s basketball team at the University of Kentucky, his alma mater, Baker said he has felt detached from recent Wildcat squads — even as they have contended for and won a national championship — because the roster is constantly changing, as the best players leave for the NBA after just one season.
In a similar way, Baker suggested, Celtics fans who loved watching Pierce and Garnett year after year would need time to open their hearts and wallets to a team with new faces.
And if an unfamiliar collection of players were to struggle, the business effect would ripple, said Jamie Roberts, manager of The Harp, which sits across from the Garden on Causeway Street. Roberts has worked at the bar since 1995 and remembers many slow nights before Pierce and Garnett helped the Celtics win a championship in 2008.
“When the team’s bad, it does affect business,” Roberts said. “People still go to the games, but you get more families going just to take the kids to an NBA game. They buy food, but we make more money off liquor than food, so if we can get more of the 21-plus crowd in here, that helps us.”