The St. Louis Spirit and the “Greatest Sports Deal Ever”

Moses Malone

The late Moses Malone played for the St. Louis Spirit in the 1975-76 ABA season

I am a sucker for anything written about the old American Basketball Association.  I lived through the entire duration of the league, although I did not become a fan until the last few years.  As a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area, I was a diehard New York Nets fan.  My favorite player, of course, was Julius Erving, but I also loved watching Super John Williamson, Billy Paultz (“The Whopper”), and Larry Kenon.  I will thrilled when the Nets moved to the NBA after the ABA folded, but was heartbroken that Dr. J left for Philadelphia.

I have heard the story about the ABA-NBA merger and the television deal that went with it, but I always enjoy reading about it again.  Here is a nice piece at Sports History Weekly about the Spirits of St. Louis, one of the teams that did not join the NBA but made, and continue to make, some serious cash as a result of the merger.

A taste:

The ABA was popular with fans but struggled financially due to lack of TV contracts. Investors were able to pick up a squad at half the cost of an NBA franchise with hopes that a merger would raise the value of their assets.

In 1974, brothers Ozzie and Dan Silna, flush with cash from the sale of their textile business, bought the ABA’s failing Carolina Cougars for $1 million and moved them to Saint Louis.

Earlier, the two had tried but failed to purchase the Detroit Pistons. When the merger was later announced, the Spirits were also shut out from the expanded league. But as fortune had it, the Silnas would avenge their frustration and anger with the sports deal of a lifetime.

Exhausted from waging bidding wars for players and fans, the NBA finally relented to a merger in 1976. Of the seven ABA clubs still competing, only four were allowed in: New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs.

One team, the Virginia Squires, had recently folded and the other two, the Kentucky Colonels and Saint Louis Spirits, were offered buyouts to disband. The owner of the Colonels accepted a $3 million takeout, but the Silnas held out for more.

The Spirits had accumulated a talent pool that leveraged their bargaining power. On the court, they employed All-Stars like Moses Malone, Marvin Barnes and Maurice Lucas. Their local play-by-play announcer was the young Bob Costas.

Since only 4 of 7 ABA franchises were accepted, the Silnas negotiated $2 million up front, plus a portion of TV broadcast revenues equal to 1/7 of the amount received by those 4 selected teams.

The kicker? The tenor of the contract would be “for as long as the NBA or its successors continues in its existence”- basically, in perpetuity.

Since TV earnings were insignificant at the time and all the relevant parties were anxious to launch the new league, the agreement was signed off in heat and haste.

But nobody, including Ozzie and Dan Silna, expected the NBA to explode as it did in the 1980’s and 1990’s, ushering in the modern era of lucrative TV contracts.

Read the entire piece here.