The NBA is the second most successful sports league in the United States and a globally-recognized brand. Nightly during the season, professional athletes dazzle with feats of brilliance that, more often than not, take fans out of their seats and keep observers analyzing through the next morning.
That doesn’t mean the league is perfect, though. No matter what the scoreboards read after a given day, fans, analysts, former players, and media members will find axes to grind. Some observations are well-reasoned, others shot from the hip, but rain or shine, there’s always going to be something to complain about.
If you find yourself somewhat dissatisfied with the current NBA, we might have some bad news for you. Today we’re running a series describing ongoing issues the league will have to deal with...or not, as the case may be.
Our first post in the series covered the flow of easy offense that has overtaken the league this season. In this post, we speculate on a relatively new development that has the potential to grow into a serious issue: consolidation of NBA agents.
The age of each NBA player employing a distinct, individual agent began passing a couple decades ago, but the trend toward Super Agencies seems to be increasing as time progresses.
Consolidating under larger umbrellas makes sense for players, who benefit from a professional organization with out-sized clout. Large agencies become de facto unions, able to bargain with the weight of multiple clients behind them instead of advocating for just one.
Player empowerment is a good and necessary evolution in the game. Rewind back to the league’s early decades and you’ll find wince-worthy examples of what happens when players have little or no say in their careers. Agents are a necessary, even good, part of the process.
Even so, potential evolution towards super agencies is likely to cement and/or create new problems for the league even as it alleviates others.
One obvious potential casualty is the actual Player’s Union. As singular talents—the least-replaceable resource in the basketball ecosystem—players hold a certain amount of power over the league and their individual agents. Bonding collectively in an independent organization—the NBPA—allows them to leverage that power into collective action on their own behalf.
As soon as the majority of those players and their paychecks come under the stewardship of a small number of agencies, the corporate voice and needs of those agencies will begin to supersede the voice and needs of the players.
If most of the NBA is signed with four huge agencies and those four agencies agree what’s best for the future of the players as a whole, what effect will one or two dissenting voices have? You’re not going to jeopardize massive streams of income for your own opinion. Independent voices are more likely to be blackballed than respected.
There’s already a presumed imbalance towards star players in the union hierarchy, if nothing else because talent permits the kind of longevity necessary to earn prominence in the organization. If enough of those stars consolidate under limited representation, it’s not hard to envision a future in which agencies become the power behind the throne.
Implications for Player Movement (and More)
Large-scale agencies can also influence and/or broker deals between teams. This already happens in mild form, with representation still relatively dispersed. Amplified, this could have serious consequences, especially for smaller or less prestigious clubs.
Suppliers understand markets. It’s how they maximize profits. The best scallops in the universe are going to three-star Michelin restaurants. Your local fish place—no matter how good it is—can’t get in on that supply chain. They order the best they can from lesser options. Scallop suppliers understand that the Michelin places expect, and will only be satisfied with, premium wares and will pay accordingly. Your local shop would like those scallops if they could get them, but ultimately will be satisfied paying a premium for lesser versions as well because that’ll still sell in their market.
As soon as agents get to a big enough scale to function as “suppliers” of players, the same thing will happen. They’ll know that 30 NBA teams would love to have a Big Scallop like Kevin Durant in their uniform. But Los Angeles, Miami, New York...these places will provide the best opportunities for visibility, advertising contracts, or tax breaks. Just as critically, those teams will only want premium players. They’re not doing to pay big money for second-tier seafood. Conversely, mom-and-pop teams in less attractive markets will be nearly as satisfied with players down a step or two as they would have been with Durant. To get a good level of talent, they’d be willing to pay a premium for Imitation Krab that the huge markets wouldn’t.
Under these conditions, decision-making power will shift farther away from franchise executives—and even players themselves—and more into the hands of agents.
That balance of power will never move away from the people who provide the product wholly, but any shift towards brokers rather than talent holds serious implications. If large agencies gain purchase, free agency and trades are going to become increasingly slanted, retaining a player through them more problematic for non-elite teams, and trying to grow from mid-level status to elite as a franchise more difficult.
The potential effect becomes worse if we consider crossover when agencies also represent NBA Coaches and Executives. Imagine a world in which the incomes of players, coaches, and management all run through the same 3-4 corporations. Now we’re not just talking about implications for trades and player signings, but actual hiring of franchise staff and subsequent decision-making.
Consumers and workers seldom prosper when any corporation (or oligarchy) gains a top-to-bottom hold on the supply chain. That’s true even in competitive markets, let alone a controlled environment like a professional sports league.
A Question of Priorities
The eternal question surrounding professional sports is whether we’re here to win, to entertain, or to make money. The answer is always all three. The balance between them is important to keeping integrity in the experience. At some level, players, owners, and league executives all understand this.
Letting secondary forces—agents and media among them—insinuate themselves in the environment creates a potential imbalance. Media, for example, will bias towards a good story (entertainment) regardless of its impact on winning or finances. Similarly, agents will bias towards financial gain over winning or aesthetics.
Nothing will change those priorities. But when one of those lopsided influences starts to influence the process unduly, it’s like loading all the cargo on one side of the ship.
The contract between the league and its fans is simple: we’ll give you money in exchange for an entertaining sport that seems reasonably well-balanced. If the ship lists and starts sailing in circles, the short-term financial gains won’t exceed the damage to credibility in the long run.
At this point, this dystopian future is still speculation and sci-fi. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the super-agent phenomenon nonetheless. Diversity of representation may become as important as other kinds of diversity as the league moves into the next decade.
Up Next: The problem everybody likes to complain about.