The High Cost of Letting Jeremy Lin Leave New York

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The Knicks' decision to abandon their unlikely superstar is seemingly about money—but it's probably more about spite.

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Of the five entities who had a ticket in the Jeremy Lin sweepstakes over the past week or so, only two wanted to see him leave New York. For Lin's part, he almost certainly wanted to stay and probably would have had the Knicks just paid him his market value. The New York press—with a couple of notable exceptions (more on that in a moment)—wanted him to stay if only because they liked him and figured he would give them more "Lin-Mania!" to write about. As far as the fans were concerned, there was no doubt: Walk down a street or hop on a subway virtually anywhere in New York and Jeremy Lin jerseys outnumbered the shirts not only of the other Knicks combined but also those of Super Bowl-winning New York Giants.

Only the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks wanted Lin out of New York. The Rockets' reasoning isn't hard to figure. They are a mediocre team and Lin makes them a little bit better, as well as giving them a fresh new marketing face. The Knicks' motives are a little harder to understand.

In professional sports, the reason anyone does anything is almost always about money. I have listened to marketing experts who know more than I do explain that the sale of all those Lin jerseys and posters brought a negligible profit to the team. It's complicated, but, the experts say, pro basketball isn't like baseball or football, where a new popular player brings in a windfall just on merchandising.

Okay, I'll accept that. But what effect does tens of thousands of Jeremy Lin jerseys all over town have on making the Knicks a presence? To me, it looks an awful lot like free advertising.

Then of course there's the matter of Lin's contract. This also gets complicated, but let's boil it down to this: By the third year of the deal, the Knicks would have to kick in the biggest chunk of the contract and could get penalized for being well over the salary cap and have to pay a stiff luxury tax.

This is the biggest concern of several New York-area writers, whose feelings are pretty much summed up by Mike Lupica in Tuesday's New York Daily News:

They have wasted a fortune over the past 10 years, the Knicks have, and have exactly one playoff win in that time to show for it. They have made so many bad decisions you lose count. They keep trying to spend their way back to the top, and it never worked. But they are doing the right thing letting Lin walk, good for [Knicks owner James] Dolan, good for the Knicks."

Mike Lupica is one of those writers who's ever solicitous of an owner's money, always willing to accept a team's excuse for why it makes the deals it does. I don't understand why some writers feel this way. It isn't as if it's their money the team is spending; it isn't even the fans' money, really. Most of the revenue comes from television, and even the portion that comes from ticket sales doesn't much impact the fans. Stated another way, if basketball—and baseball and football—players made, say, $150,000 a year instead of $8 to $10 million, ticket prices would stay exactly what they are. It isn't like the Knicks are going to up the price of tickets by $5—or whatever—to cover the cost of a player's contract.

So why, then, should we care how much money in luxury tax the Knicks would have to pay in three years to cover Lin's contract? And who, after all, can really be sure that three years from now the team wouldn't dump one of its high-priced stars to create some room under the salary cap to accommodate Lin and perhaps another upcoming star?

And while we're considering all angles, shouldn't the primary consideration be to field the best possible team, one that would sell tickets and make more money in the playoffs, money that could help offset the cost of keeping Jeremy Lin?

All of this to say that no matter what line the Knicks and their PR people are putting out there, there is no economic reason why the team couldn't have matched the Houston Rockets' offer if they wanted to. This past Tuesday, Ian O'Connor of ESPN.com described the situation the best, I think:

The Knicks threw him out there and watched one of the most improbable stories ever told unfold on their watch. And now they're prepared to give Lin away for nothing ... Any successful business needs to protect its prime assets, and the Knicks aren't protecting one of their own.

The player the Knicks brought in to replace Lin, Raymond Felton, is not only not as good as Lin, he is four years older. And so the Knicks will begin this season with a team that is older and not as good as the team they already had, a team less likely to make even the first round of the playoffs, as they did last year.

Why have they chosen this path? I think for the reason that seems most obvious, judging from the grumblings that have come out from the Knicks front office in the last several days, ever since Lin dared to sit down with the Rockets and find out what he actually might be worth on the open market. James Dolan is one of those team owners who believes that loyalty is a door that swings one way—into his office.

I believe Dolan thought that by signing a mediocrity like Felton to play point guard, he was by God showing Jeremy Lin that he wasn't going to give into any strong-arm tactics from a player. And that's what owners call it when a player has leverage in a deal.

The one entity that really got short-changed in the deal is the fans. Lin inspired the only enthusiasm and widespread interest the Knicks have seen in a long time. Don't look for "Felton-Mania!" in the sports headlines this season.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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