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Garnett’s $126 million: Wolves’ bargain or bust?

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As staggering as Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract seems, someday it might be looked upon as a bargain.

It also could turn into the deal that sinks the Minnesota Tim-ber-wolves if Garnett and the team flop.Only in the screwball world of sports accounting, where number crunchers perform bookkeeping gymnastics, can such a deal for a 21-year-old seem rational. And only in the paranoid universe of sports agents, where inflation races ahead oblivious to the rest of the economy, would anyone worry that maybe Garnett's contract is too small.

Here, then, is the anatomy of a mega-deal being studied around the sports landscape.

Two questions raised by Garnett's contract with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves - "Can a small-market team afford to pay that kind of money?" and "Can the Timberwolves keep other good players without busting the salary cap?" - have the same answer: Yes.

An analysis of the contract and the Timberwolves' finances by The Associated Press, based on discussions with team and league officials, industry analysts and sports economists, shows:

- Garnett's deal is bigger than originally reported and can grow beyond its $126 million in salary payments over six years.

- There's room in the deal for the Timberwolves to re-sign point guard Stephon Marbury and high-scoring All-Star forward Tom Gugliotta next summer, despite the salary cap.

- Team operating losses could reach $103 million over the last four years.

- The deal is built on the rosiest of scenarios and yet-to-be-negotiated agreements - including a possible doubling of the NBA's $1.1 billion, four-year TV contract with NBC and Turner Broadcasting starting next season.

- If all goes well, the Timberwolves could blossom into a glamour franchise and grow in value to more than $300 million by the end of the contract.

According to league figures provided this week to the AP by an NBA source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Garnett's salary will leap from $2.1 million this season to $14 million next year, $16.8 million the following year, then $19.6 million, $22.4 million, $25.2 million, and, in the last year of the deal, $28 million.

The "very substantial," though undisclosed, bonuses tied to the Timberwolves' success are not included in those figures, said a team executive and Garnett's agent, Eric Fleisher. There are no bonuses for individual achievements.

Every dime is guaranteed, even if Garnett is injured or doesn't develop into a superstar, and Garnett cannot opt out of the contract early.

If the skinny, 7-foot Garnett, who jumped to the NBA out of high school two years ago, can lead the Timberwolves to a title in a few years, he may very well be as valuable to them as Michael Jordan, at $36 million this season, is to the Chicago Bulls.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor agreed to the contract, which surpassed Shaquille O'Neal's seven-year, $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers and made Garnett's the largest long-term team pact. Taylor expects the deal will make the Wolves successful and more profitable.

"I'm betting on that," said Taylor, who bought the team for $88.5 million two years ago and has seen it rise in value, according to Financial World Magazine, to $123 million this year.

The Garnett deal differs from some other big contracts in that it provides for no huge annuities, loans or back-loaded payments that inflate their value for bragging rights. What it does is take advantage of the Timberwolves' prospects, his worth to the team at the gate and in marketing, and the anticipated growth of the NBA.

All those elements were taken into account by both sides. The result was a payment schedule designed to allow the club to re-sign Marbury, Garnett's best friend who also is represented by Fleisher, and Gugliotta next summer.

Two years ago, in Garnett's rookie season and Taylor's first full year at the helm, the club barely broke even with about $40 million in total revenues and $40 million in operating expenses, according to a club source. The Timberwolves labored through a 26-56 season, and attendance dropped for a fifth straight year to 585,685 despite the fourth-lowest ticket prices in the league.

By comparison, the New York Knicks that year had $99.9 million in total revenues and $76.9 million in expenses, Financial World said.

Last season, however, the Timberwolves reached the playoffs with a 40-42 record, attendance reached 697,727, and, according to the AP's analysis, the team had $50.6 million in revenues vs. $43 million in costs.

Projections for this season are even more impressive, with anticipated higher attendance despite higher ticket prices. The day after Garnett signed, hundreds of fans ordered season tickets. Season ticket sales are 11,000 so far, compared with 8,000 last year.

The profits will help the Timberwolves when the first year of Garnett's deal kicks in. So, too, will the extra revenues anticipated from a share of the NBA's new national TV contracts, the renewal of contracts expiring with Minnesota media, and still higher ticket prices.

For 1998-99, the Timberwolves' revenues are projected to reach as high as $84.9 million - $30.8 million from the gate, $20 million from national TV, $16.2 from local media, $13.3 from venue revenue and $4.6 million from other revenue - against $41 million in player salaries and $20.5 million in other costs.

That's assuming the Tim-ber-wolves sell out all regular-season home games and play at least four games at home in the playoffs, with ticket prices rising about 10 percent a year. No estimate is made for any bonuses Garnett might receive.

The biggest boost, by far, in 1998-99 is expected to come from the NBA's national TV deals, which has brought in about $10 million a year to each team since the 1994-95 season. Negotiations are under way with NBC and Turner Broadcasting, and if those talks break down, the NBA could go to other networks.

Some analysts have speculated that NBC, which pays the NBA $750 million over four years, and Turner, which pays $350 million, might triple their combined package. Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president and now head of a sports consulting firm, believes it's more likely to double.

The Timberwolves are counting on Pilson's more conservative target, and they will need the profits built up through the 1998-99 season to help pay for higher salaries the next year.

In the 1999-2000 season, the Timberwolves' costs could soar to $95.7 million, while revenues reach only $91.6 million. But one issue that shouldn't plague the Timberwolves is the team salary cap.

The cap, now $26.9 million, figures to rise to about $32 million in two years when the first year of Marbury's new contract would begin. The Timberwolves would pay Garnett $16.8 million that year and have $15.2 million left under the cap. The team is likely to re-sign as many of their other players as they can by next summer to stay under the cap, in order to have the flexibility to negotiate with Marbury and Gugliotta.

Since Marbury and Gugliotta would be the Timberwolves' own free agents, the team can exceed the cap to sign them for any amount - locking them up for a long time just as the team did with Garnett.

Projections for the final four years of Garnett's contract, when his salary is added in with an extra $20 million a year to cover Marbury, Gugliotta and others, show the Timberwolves absorbing increasing operating losses: $17 million in 2000-2001; $27.6 million the next year; $28.8 million the following year; and $29.9 million in the final year.

If those projections, which assume a doubling of national TV rights again in 2002-2003, are in the ballpark, the Timberwolves would have operating losses of $56 million during the length of Garnett's contract.

The team might avert those losses by broadcasting some playoff games on pay-per-view TV each year, as several other teams have.

Moreover, any operating losses have to be viewed in light of the overall appreciation of a club's value.

If the Timberwolves grow by only a modest 8 percent in value each year through the end of Garnett's contract, the franchise would be worth $211 million. At 15 percent annual growth, the franchise would go to $327 million.

If Garnett and his teammates can deliver on court, and enhance the franchise's value along the way, his deal will one day seem like a bargain.