Throughout this spring, I read several articles and thoughts on the issue of tanking. Truehoop, Hardwood Paroxysm, Bill Simmons, The Point Forward and countless others weighed in on the topic. The solution nearly everyone came up with involved “fixing” the draft lottery. Whether it was a matter of tweaking it or outright destroying it, most people seemed to agree that it began and ended with the draft. I have a different viewpoint on things — and it turns out that it goes way beyond just the issue of tanking.
This originally started out as a post about the NBA’s recently announced plans to place corporate ads on jerseys in the near future. I particularly liked this viewpoint from Wages of Wins on the topic and was going to use it as the basis for a counterpoint to Chip’s post on it last week. After all, I’m a huge fan of soccer, so I’m accustomed to watching my favorite English Premier League team (Arsenal) wear a jersey that is nothing but a massive ad on a regular basis. Then there are the rotating ads that ring the pitch (that’s what they call the soccer field — for novices to the sport) that are an ever-present reminder of how money drives all sports, but especially those of championship contenders.
You see, in the EPL there is what is known as “The Big Four” — 4 teams that traditionally rule the top of the standings and also happen to be amongst the richest teams, too. This quartet consists of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. That’s not to say that other teams cannot break through, as we saw last season when Manchester City won the title and Tottenham Hotspur finished in 4th place, as Chelsea and Liverpool fell off. Of course, Man City’s rise coincided with their billionaire owner emptying his pocketbooks in an effort to lift his team’s standing from also-ran to champion. And Chelsea might have finished 6th in the EPL, but they did win the Champions League tournament, which is the most prestigious honor in European club soccer. You see, the money is what drives the fortunes of most teams — and advertising is an excellent supplement, as the reported $178 million in ad revenue from last season proves.
This is the type of revenue source that the NBA is hoping to tap into. However, I started thinking about a few other things that they could borrow from the Euros’ club soccer setup. The top teams in the EPL qualify for the top tier tournaments: the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. Success in these tournaments bolsters the status of these teams, as well as puts more money in their coffers. It’s similar to NBA teams who are able to make the playoffs consistently, and are thus able to attract quality free agents and sponsors due to their success.
There is something else that happens near the end of each season though — and this is what I’d like to see the NBA adopt some form of. The bottom 3 teams in the EPL are marked for “relegation”, which means that they drop down to a lesser league for the next season, while the top teams from that league get to move up as a reward. Now, in English soccer, there are actually 6 levels that consist of 136 total teams. Only the top 20 are Level One, which is the Premier League. That’s where you want to be because that’s where the prestige and money are at. It’s similar to how Major League Baseball’s minor league system is set up with its designations of Single A, Double A, and Triple A, with the majors being the top level. Now, imagine if the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies were subject to being sent to Triple A leagues, while the Sacramento River Cats and Indianapolis Indians were promoted to the big time. Makes things a bit more interesting, doesn’t it? There are two big issues with applying this to the NBA: no true minor league system and the outrage of perpetual also-rans and their fans who happen to reside in “big-league cities”.
The first issue is the more pressing one to address. The D-League has proven to be a good place to send young players and to occasionally find a decent player in the event of injury. Also, I truly believe that the NBA needs a true minor league system that will continue to develop young players, as well as give other talented athletes an opportunity to showcase their skills and possibly garner an NBA contract. However, with only 16 teams, many of which are found in out-of-the-way locales like Bismarck, North Dakota, there is an obvious problem with elevating these teams to the level of the NBA. No disrespect to Bismarck, but if people think there is a wide disparity between a metropolis like NYC or L.A. and places like Oklahoma City and Memphis, wait until they get a load of North Dakota.
The quickest solution is to strike a deal with the Euro leagues, since that’s where the majority of non-collegiate talent comes from nowadays. But the logistics of such a thing — air travel being the most important of these — make it a nightmare to even consider. My idea is simpler, and yet bolder, too.
Seattle, Vancouver, Kansas City, St. Louis, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Nashville. What do these cities have in common? All have other major sports franchises and populations large enough to potentially support another one. If you add in Austin (a good-sized city that is already home to an NBDL franchise), Las Vegas, and Louisville, you have the makings of a very strong second tier league of 10 teams. Ten is a decent number, but not quite enough. That’s why I propose adding teams in Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, and San Juan as well. This also assists in the NBA’s continuing efforts to expand internationally. Fourteen teams seems about right to me for this new NBA-2 league.
There will definitely be an issue of contract sizes. The NBA-2 will have to have a smaller salary cap number, to be sure. Perhaps 75% of what the NBA’s salary cap is. But we cannot have the newly relegated teams just forced to drop contracts either. This might be the most audacious part of my plan. Teams that are relegated to the NBA-2 will only pay their players 75% of their contracts’ value. Under this plan, the Wizards’ top paid player, Emeka Okafor, would see his salary shrink from $13.5 million down to $10.2 million. Do you think that wouldn’t motivate players to avoid being in the Bottom 2 each season, as well as challenging them to be in the Top 2 of the NBA-2? I know this isn’t likely to ever get the approval of the NBAPA, but neither will half of my proposals, so I’m just putting it out there as something that will have to be addressed.
Check back tomorrow for more…