And So It Begins

A couple months ago, I did a post outlining a worst-case scenario for the NBA.  In it, the league splits into several different divisions, roughly based on market size--with the top-drawer talent going to the major NBA markets, and the rest of the league (including Portland) essentially becoming minor-league basketball.  The article made the rec list; though most commenters thought the scenario was far-fetched.

And far-fetched it may still be.  I won't defend the particulars of the arrangement, lots of which was pure speculation and exercise of dramatic license--but with the NBAPA moving to decertify, we're a step closer in that direction.

The "A-league/B-league/C-league" arrangement--the key detail of which is the creation of a new "super-league" consisting of the big-market teams, dominated by the NBA superstars, rested on two key assumptions:

  • A schism between the superstar players and the union rank-and file.  The NBAPA has long been criticized (or praised) for focusing on the interests of the "average" NBA player; particularly established veterans.  The expired CBA is good for you if you're a veteran player but not a superstar.  It's bad for you if you are a superstar (guys like Lebron James are arguably underpaid); and it's bad for you if you are on rookie scale.  A "free market" arrangement of salaries would look like the entertainment industry, where A-list actors and musicians make eight-figure salaries, and everyone else is is making a middle-class salary off bit parts and/or touring if they are lucky; or waiting tables and playing for tips if not. 
  • A schism between the big-market owners and the rest.

Both schisms are happening as we speak.  One likely reason that the union is looking to decertify is based on the advice of agents.  Whether this is good advice for the rank-and-file or bad is debatable--agents who represent a stable of players (collecting a percentage from each) might do better under the "free market" system, assuming they can get a superstar on board.  We might even see top-drawer agents not bothering to represent the middle-class players under such a system--if players aren't making millions; the agent's commission might be no longer worth the work involved. 

On the owner's side, a while back the Blogfather did a post dividing the league's owners into "hawks" and "doves"; with the latter wanting to put the screws to players and the former wanting to get to a deal quickly.  While the correlation between market size wasn't absolute (Robert $arver was ID'd as a hawk, for instance, and Clay Bennett a dove); in general the big market teams were the doves.

And now, the union intends to decertify.   The league has an unfair labor practice complaint ready to go--and decertification didn't help the NFLPA all that much; but if it succeeds, then much of the terms of the CBA--including the salary cap, the draft, the luxury tax, the rookie scale, and other restrictions on free agency--go "poof".  Some have even suggested that existing player contracts are null and void if the NBAPA decertifies.  Were that arrangement to hold up, the NBA would start to more resemble pro sports in Europe.  And far more so than in the US, European pro sporting clubs (particularly football and basketball, the two most popular team sports 'cross the pond) are divided into the "haves" and the "have-nots".  In basketball, you have the various national leagues (the ACB, LNB), which are either divided into tiers explicitly, or have promotion/relegation arrangements with lesser leagues; and on top of this you have the Euroleague, were select pro teams from various national leagues compete against each other.  While membership in the upper echelon is dependent on more than just local market size--past history and prestige matters quite a bit; there are quite a few clubs which are the European equivalent to the Lakers or Yankees or Cowboys.   Real Madrid (in both sports).  Man U.  Ajax.  CKSA Moscow.  Barcelona.  And there are many teams, nominally in the upper divisions of their sport, which have little chance of ever effectively  hoisting a championship trophy, and are more likely to be relegated down than to win a title at the top level.

Similar situations exist today, to some extent, in major league baseball (without the threat of relegation); and in NCAA football.  MLB has no salary cap, and a toothless draft (domestic prospects are drafted based on potential, before anyone knows if they will be any good--making the whole process a giant crapshoot, and foreign players are not subject to the draft and are thus free to sign with the Yankees and Red Sox).  In the NCAAs, we are seeing today the creation of superconferences--expansion in the Pac-12, SEC, and Big East; and I wonder how soon before a fourth tier of college football, between the current BCS and FCS divisions--arises.  (Or more likely--the migration of mid-major programs down into the FCS, as they are systematically excluded from the major bowls by the major conferences and their media partners). 

Could such a thing happen in the NBA?  Certainly.  While I doubt a formal stratification like suggested in the original post will actually happen (the other 20 owners would likely object--unless paid off--as it would significantly devalue their investments); we could result in a new set of arrangements that makes basketball look more like baseball than like American football; making it difficult for small-market clubs to compete for titles and even more so to maintain dynasties.  The Blazers' fate, in particular, would be more and more dependent on Paul Allen's willingness to spend lots of money--and even that might not be good enough, if the city of Portland is viewed as a second-tier destination for free agents.

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