By Nathan C. Vance
I read an interesting article by Kevin O’Conner on The Ringer in which he addressed the danger of players taking less than market value on NBA contracts. Within his article, he mentioned the flawed thinking of the union pushing for more money for superstars rather than fixing real issues that affect the league’s lower end players, specifically mentioning restricted free agency and the draft. As a lover of the NBA, I rarely stop to consider such things because, for me, the league only serves an entertainment need but I have a son. While the odds of him one day playing in the NBA are extremely low, it’s not impossible, and if he was to make it to that level, I wonder what type of work environment I would want him to play in. So today I’m going to outline the changes that I would try to make if I were the head of the players’ union in order to make the game healthier for fans and, at the same time, more rewarding for the workers that make it so great.
First of all, I’d start with the distribution of revenue. Warning, this split is going to come out of left field, but I think the players would be agreeable to a system that gives to needy communities in order to create better opportunities for young people, especially in lower-income areas. Considering only the 2018 revenue projection, the NBA will bring in approximately eight billion dollars annually going forward. The players currently receive 51 percent of that revenue while ownerships receive 49 percent. My amended proposal would see the players maintain 51 percent, the owners receive 45 percent, and the other four percent (approximately $320 annually) would be allocated to the poorest school districts in the U.S. This money would help to bridge the gap so that lower-income areas have equal access to technology, updated learning materials, guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities. For the players, it’s an opportunity to make an impact in the communities that helped raise them. For the league, it would be the type of positive PR that would see increased loyalty to the NBA brand. Millennials have proven to spend more with companies that are involved with social causes and their influence could see the NBA surpass the NFL as the king among American sports. That four percent investment into the future would be a progressive step and should be a vital part of what the NBA stands for.
The second area I would address would be the age of eligibility. This has been a fan hot button for years and is an issue that commissioner Adam Silver has addressed publicly in recent months. There are two sides to the argument. Side one is that players over the age of 18 are adults and should be able to freely enter the workforce. Side two is that the NBA is a global entertainment company that needs to protect itself by putting certain guidelines in place for the overall health of the product. For every LeBron James who came in ready to play and take the league by storm, there are ten Lenny Cookes who needed college, time, and maturity to better prepare for the life of an NBA player. The reality is that LeBron James is an exception and Lenny Cooke is the rule. As union leader, I would make the concession that players need to be two years removed from high school to enter the NBA. That concession would be made because there are bigger issues that the players need to fix for their own self preservation. This win for the owners would leverage bigger wins for the players.
One of those wins that the players need is in restricted free agency. The idea of restricted free agency is valid in theory as it is an attempt to protect teams, especially small market teams, from losing their budding stars. However, it has led to contracts that hurt teams and players. A recent example of a player being affected by restricted free agency was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He was a restricted free agent of the Detroit Pistons. To avoid a luxury tax bill, those rights were waived by the Pistons, but only after a considerable number of free agents had already been signed by other teams. This damaged his market and forced him to sign a one-year contract below market value. A team who was hurt by restricted free agency was the Washington Wizards. Their free agent wing, Otto Porter, was given a contract by the Brooklyn Nets with extremely unique terms. The Wizards matched the contract in order to keep Porter but they may likely regret doing so in the foreseeable future. The point is that restricted free agency is of very little benefit to team or player and should be eliminated. This would add an element of freedom from a player’s perspective, which would be an enormous win.
The last major item on my agenda would be the NBA draft. The draft is a very popular event for fans because of the access to young players and instant analysis on moves that any given team makes. One problem with a draft is how unfair it is to a player who is already required to travel 50 nights per year to also have their new home chosen for them. Another problem is that the draft is a reward for futility. The worse your team is, the better its chance at the number one pick and, potentially, the league’s next megastar. Instead, tree players coming into the NBA as free agents. Allow them to negotiate with teams and allow teams to dedicate as many resources as possible to those players. Allow players to choose their best fit, their best salary, etc.The obvious fear is a balance of power within the league. However, the salary cap would remain as is, which would limit the number of teams who are able to sign incoming rookies to large contracts. This would also help to emphasize competition as players tend to skew away from poorly run organizations. In this system, Markell Fultz would be forced to decide if he would rather play for a small contract on a great team like Golden State or Cleveland or if he would rather play for a massive contract on a poor team like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or New York. My belief is that players should have greater control over their destiny. They should have the same opportunity to decide what “company” they wish to work for as any other graduating college student. I see this as a huge win for the players, of course, but a major win for teams as well. Perform well and be rewarded—as it should be.
Finally, there would be more days off. Too often fans are cheated the chance to see the league’s premiere stars because they are unfortunate enough to have tickets to a game on the second night of a back-to-back. At the same time, players’ careers are shortened because of the toll these back-to-backs take on their bodies. Humans need rest— even NBA super-humans. Fans need stars. The league needs healthy bodies. The easy solution is to simply change the way that scheduling is handled. While travel expenses may grow, the quality of the product and the health of the league should grow even more. In the end, that is what’s best for everyone involved.
These are simple changes. They may seem drastic but they’re really not. Most of these tweaks would simply mirror the business practices long held by the rest of society. These changes would also lead to a better work environment, happier players, and more entertainment for fans. And, if all of the changes were implemented, the NBA would take a major leadership role in fixing several wrongs within our society. That’s the type of league I’d want my own son to play in.