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Celtics-Lakers finals: Today and 21 years ago

Image: Lakers and Celtics
Larry Bird earned less than $2 million when the Celtics faced the Lakers in the finals 21 years ago. Magic Johnson made about $2.5 million. Mike Kullen / AP file

Back in the 20th century, when the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers last faced off in the NBA Finals, Jack Nicholson sat courtside, his omnipresent sunglasses snug on his face.

Twenty-one years later, little else beyond Nicholson’s presence and his trademark shades will be the same when the teams do battle.

There are the obvious differences, to be sure: players no longer wear short shorts, and at least one, Kobe Bryant, will pull a sleeve onto his arm (hard to imagine the trash-talking Larry Bird doing that). The temperature in the visitors’ locker room in Boston will most likely be acceptable, not stifling. And the Walton on the floor will be Luke, not Bill.

But the most dramatic changes are visible on the business side of the game.

Start with the players. Bryant, the highest-paid athlete on the Lakers and the NBA MVP, earns about $16 million in endorsements and nearly $20 million in salary. That Lakers’ paycheck is more than double what the entire team was paid during their 1987 championship year. Magic Johnson, the highest-paid player on that squad as well as the year’s MVP, earned about $2.5 million in salary and less in endorsements.

Boston star Kevin Garnett pulls down more than $23 million in salary and millions in endorsement income, a number guaranteed to soar with an NBA title. Bird earned less than $2 million in salary during the 1986-87 season and, considering his stature on the court, was barely on the map in endorsement income.

The arenas have changed. The Garden exists in name only, replaced by TD Banknorth Garden, offering 18,624 seats compared to the old arena’s 14,000-plus. It boasts a slew of luxury suites its predecessor lacked. The sole Garden View Suite has been rented for $15,000 in the playoffs, according to the Boston Herald, a number sure to rise for the potential four championship games in Boston.

Across the country, the Staples Center is a far cry from the drab (if supposedly Fabulous) Forum. Opened in 1999, the 18,997-seat venue offers nearly 3,000 more seats than the Inglewood venue – and the average ticket price at Staples is the highest in the league, approaching $90.

The cost of a ticket to the NBA Finals has soared since ’87.  In Los Angeles, the face value of a seat in the 100 level at mid-court today is $365. Tickets in Boston range from $30-$3,200. Thanks to the introduction of the Internet, the secondary-ticket market has sent big-game prices into the stratosphere. On this weekend, a courtside seat (TD Banknorth Garden offers 122) to Game 1 cost as much as $8,000. That’s a bargain compared to Game 3 in Los Angeles, where a courtside seat was offered for $28,573.

Amid all this, franchise valuations are at record highs. Forbes reports the Celtics are worth $391 million; a decade ago, they weren’t even worth half as much at $176 million and were likely in eight figures during the ’87 matchup. The story for the Lakers is even better: a $560 million price tag these days.

As the two teams soar in value like a James Worthy dunk, the growth of the NBA since that ’87 campaign has also been impressive.

Aided in part by – which didn’t exist two decades ago – and the increase in foreign-born players, the fan base has jumped globally. Overall game attendance, which reached 12.6 million during the 1986-87 season, has rocketed past 20 million.

Television income is enormous. The eight-year pact with ABC/ESPN and TNT which begins this fall is worth more than $900 million a year to the league. The CBS deal during the 1980s was nowhere in the neighborhood.

The boom has inflated the price of commercials. During the 2007 NBA Finals, the average cost of a 30-second commercial was $389,000, according to TNS Media Intelligence. It didn’t even reach six figures in '87.

Despite those numbers, ratings have taken a big hit during the same period. About 24 million viewers per game watched the 1987 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers. Despite a population increase in the U.S. in the past two decades, the NBA Finals drew only about 9 million per game in 2007, according to Nielsen.

But those numbers are poised to reverse. This year’s best-of-seven series promises to be the most-watched Finals matchup since Michael Jordan swished game-winning shots for the Chicago Bulls. Nothing could please the NBA more than this battle, which will draw in a slew of casual fans. It also arrives at a relatively barren time in the sports landscape, with only the Belmont horse race and golf’s U.S. Open as any sort of competition for the attention of sports fans and the media.

So Jack will be back in his front-row seat. Sure, it’ll cost a little bit more than when Magic Johnson joined the Lakers. Then, $15 bought a ticket courtside during the regular season; for this year’s NBA Finals, it’s $3,700. But no doubt Nicholson will handle the truth that this historic rivalry is worth the cost.