Land of the fee

Ian Whittell examines how the Dream Team will cash in after Atlanta

The United States basketball team commenced their inevitable march towards an Olympic gold medal in the early hours of this morning. But for several of theirmembers there are much greater prizes at present at stake.

The prospect of dealing with basketball powerhouses like Argentina and Angola was a side issue for players, fans and media alike in the US last week. The real issue was free agency - a players' union-inspired legal anomaly that allowed 160 leading NBA stars to become free agents as of 9 July - and who could strike the most outrageous deal. As feeding frenzies go, the ensuing 10 days of intense activity would not have looked out of place in a Jaws movie.

Fittingly, the game's greatest player, Michael Jordan, sparked the gold rush. The Chicago Bulls magician had told his team he felt he was worth $18m a season. Fine, said the Bulls, take $25m for next year.

There had been a covert understanding that Jordan, who had not renegotiated a contract for six years, would complete the first big deal and establish the relative standard for the rest of the free agency negotiations.

If any sportsman is worth such a staggering sum - "If Sylvester Stallone gets paid $20m for a movie, why shouldn't Michael get that for a season?" asked the Chicago coach Phil Jackson - it is Jordan. But the next big contract, signed by Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat, set a staggering benchmark. Mourning is 26 and yet to fulfil the great promise he showed earlier in his career. Last season, particularly in a play-off defeat by the Bulls, he was largely ineffective. The going rate for mediocrity in the NBA last week was $112m over seven years.

The loose cannon in the equation remained Shaquille O'Neal, another Olympic gold medallist in waiting and the league's second most marketable player after Jordan. O'Neal's Orlando Magic made a desperation offer of $120m over seven years to combat a $115m, seven-year bid from the Los Angeles Lakers. LA, a city that appeals to O'Neal because of the opportunities it allows him to pursue movie and music interests, trumped the Magic by presenting him with more cash up front and allowing him to become a free agent again in four years. Honours and egos were even. Jordan has the largest single annual salary in the history of team sports, O'Neal the greatest aggregate total. "It was a very, very tough decision," he said. "Just like choosing where to go to college and whether to get married."

Not unreasonably, the more cautionary voices around the league are wondering where the madness will cease. The Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins observed: "I have never been involved in anything more crazy than what has happened over the last few days. This is a real negative for the NBA. You've got people fighting over players and breaking up franchises." The Atlanta Hawks president Stan Kasten represented the other side of the argument when he noted: "I don't have any problem with NBA salaries. It means revenue in the league is good."

The NBA's national TV deal is worth $1.1bn over four years and the league generates over $3bn annually in merchandising. Inevitably, the fans will also be asked to play their part. Even before O'Neal's decision, the Lakers announced that the cheapest seats had more than doubled in price, from $9.50 to $21, while celebrities like Jack Nicholson have seen their $500 a game courtside seats jump to $600.

Disgruntled fans aside, the only losers are senior players now coming to the end of their careers, such as the Dream Team member Charles Barkley. "I'm firing my mother," said the 33-year-old. "She's off the Barkley pay roll. She had me too soon."

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