The High School to College Jump Debate… Righting the Ship

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

The NBA may be peaking in terms of popularity right now, but make no mistakes – it is an organization in very serious trouble.

The league has been hijacked by players, it is hemorrhaging money, and now the limited population of truly talented athletes in the league have all decided to migrate east, creating what is sure to be an extremely top-heavy NBA.

The league is enjoying a spike in popularity, but how long can that popularity be sustained? There are only so many superstars that are worth the media attention lavished on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade during this past off-season. Now that Carmelo Anthony has signed on with the Knicks, the only thing left for the talking heads in the sports world to talk about is, “Where will Chris Paul sign?

Things just aren’t like they used to be.

Comparisons to the “good ol’ days” often point to the fact that the league’s biggest stars from back in the day would have never teamed up to play on the same team. The notion that Magic would have taken his talents to Boston to team up with Byrd, or that Jordan would ever put on a Knicks uniform to share the same court with Ewing is just absurd. These were hyper-competitive athletes who wanted to share none of the glory.

There has clearly been a change in mentality between the stars of yesterday, and those of today. It has completely altered the climate of professional basketball.

That change has been the talent level of the B and C class talent.

Superstar talent may be comparable to the golden days, but supporting casts in the NBA are a shell of what they once were.

NBA Lite

Thanks to the miracle of NBA expansion, the league has officially reached its saturation point. The league has outgrown the boundaries that would have allowed it to remain competitive, and the limited pool of real NBA-worthy talent is not enough to stock the ocean that is the current NBA.

Talent is watered down to such a point now that the current NBA draft format (which is only two rounds to begin with) is completely irrelevant. With the exception of a small handful of lottery players, most of the draft class from each new season spends the first two to three years of their professional careers either in the D-league, or playing foreign ball. It is not until after some REAL development has taken place that a player (no matter how promising they might be) will actually get an opportunity to test their mettle in the big leagues.

Where in previous years a team might have three or four role players with genuine talent, the teams of today are lucky if they have one guy who can truly hold his own in helping to hoist the elite up.

So who can blame the athletes with REAL talent from wanting to team up?

Guys like LeBron James are no longer expected just to be great players, they are expected to act as mentors and trainers who must take on the responsibility of developing those players around them. They cannot focus solely on their game, because they have to make everyone else better.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets are the perfect example of this fact. Before their superstar saviors came to town, they were the bottom-feeders of the league. While those superstar saviors were in town, they realized elevated levels of success, but nothing truly satisfying. Now that those superstar saviors are gone, they have sunk back into the depths of irrelevance.

They enjoyed a boost in winning percentages because they had a difference-maker on the court, but that boost was short-lived because those difference-makers didn’t want to have to do everything. While they want to be the best guy on the court, they don’t want to be the ONLY guy on the court. So they have sacrificed their shot at EXCLUSIVE glory so they can at least have a shot at glory.

Fixing the problem

The good news for NBA fans is that the upcoming CBA expiration provides the perfect opportunity to fix the league’s problems. Who would have thought that inspiration for that fix would come from the same organization blamed for the overhyped condition of sports in America today – ESPN?

Last weekend, analysts Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis, following one of their broadcasts, discussed a recommendation that was so well received that Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo, has decided to propose it to the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The recommendation was that the NBA should implement an ultimatum of sorts to prospective NBA draft entrants. For those who feel they are truly ready to make the immediate leap from high school into the pros, they deserve that opportunity. The one-year waiting period will be waived, and they can follow in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and several others who have gone on to superstardom.

For those who are not ready, though, they will have to commit to a THREE-year (as opposed to one) stint in college.

This is actually a brilliant proposal that would boost the level of play, not only for the NBA, but also for college basketball (although the benefits for the NCAA are irrelevant to the topic at hand today).

For starters, this would actually not be an unprecedented policy. In fact, it is exactly the same policy held by the MLB. Although the NFL does not offer an immediate entry into their ranks, they still require a three-year wait.

The greatest benefit that the NBA would realize is that it would no longer have to assume the responsibility of developing athletes who are SUPPOSED to be NBA-caliber talent. As evidenced by the current state of talent in the league, it is obvious that the league stinks at developing talent anyway. Why not let players grow-up in college, at someone else’s expense, so that when they DO join the professional ranks they do so as matured athletes who are ready to hit the ground running.

This elevation in entry-level talent coming into the league would help boost the level of competition across the board. Teams would be able to populate their rosters with a better class of athlete, and the support-starved stars of the game today will feel less pressure to take on the role of team savior.

The end result is that all of the teams in the league would get better. The depth of talent from the five starters to the pine-riders and the D-leaguers would make the game more competitive, and stars of the league might be more compelled to resume the competitive nature of their predecessors, staying put and striving for individual glory, rather than a shared piece of the ultimate prize.

This proposal, which is now being championed by one of the most respected coaches in basketball today, is one that will benefit the entire game of basketball. It will make the players better, and it will make the league better.

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The Which Lockout Hurts More Debate… NBA Enjoys Fans Thanks to Fair Weather

January 19, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

I am just going to come right out on the record – 2011 could be a really lousy year for sports, ESPECIALLY if we have lockouts in both the NBA and the NFL.

There is little doubt that fans would miss the NFL more than they would the NBA. That is not intended as a slight against the NBA, but when you consider the relative popularity of each sport, the NFL is far and away the king. The loss of the NFL, a league where popularity supersedes the NBA, would correspondingly supersede the loss of the NBA.

But we are not arguing about the sport that would be MISSED the most if they both close up shop for part or all of the next season. We are arguing about which sport itself which has more to lose. In answer to that, there is also little doubt – this time it’s the NBA.

Think about it. The NFL is the undisputed champion when it comes to fan support. While the loss of the NFL will greatly impact fans, the clamor for its return will be equally as great. The moment a deal gets signed, and REAL NFL players once again take to the gridiron, fans will flood back in droves. The NFL would not skip a beat in fan support.

The NBA will not be so lucky.

The NBA’s popularity right now is not sustainable. The league has prospered thanks to media obsession and the celebrity of LeBron James. The circus of “The Decision,” as well as the media frenzy in trying to predict where LeBron will sign, has single-handedly fueled the NBA’s national relevance for the past three seasons.

I am not exaggerating. Since 2008, the biggest stories out of the NBA were all about whether LeBron’s latest comments or actions could be an indication of his intentions for the summer of 2010.

Then, once “The Decision” was announced, fans have continued to follow the NBA, because they wanted to A) see how LeBron and company performed in Miami, and B) boo him whenever he comes to town.

Whether good guy or villain, the NBA owes its relevance to LeBron James.

As soon as LeBron goes away, the media will stop caring, the fans will forget, and the league loses all relevance.

Why the difference? Because unlike the NFL, where parity guarantees that every team can contend for the post-season every year, the NBA is completely dominated by a very small handful of franchises, a reality that is demonstrated in several different ways.

Fan Attendance
Even “bad” teams in the NFL repeatedly sell out each of game. In fact, during the 2010 season, nine different franchises AVERAGED sellouts for the entire season, and 30 out of 32 teams averaged to sell AT LEAST 80 percent of their total tickets. Compare that with the NBA, where only seven teams are averaging sellouts for each home game, with nine of the teams in the league failing to even reach that 80 percent total.

Value
When Forbes published their list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world last year, all 32 NFL franchises were on the list BEFORE a single NBA franchise was named, including the Buffalo Bills (33rd), Jacksonville Jaguars (37th), and Detroit Lions (38th). In fact, even the Formula One’s Ferrari Team (16th) is valued greater than any franchise the NBA has to offer. (In case you are wondering, the NBA barely even cracked the top 50, as its two most valuable franchises – the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks – checked in at 49 and 50, respectively).

What do these numbers mean? They mean that fans love the NFL more than the NBA. Even the perennial “losers” like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo continue to generate greater revenue, and sell more tickets, than the very best of the NBA.

If NBA fans can’t even support their winners in the same manner as the NFL, what on earth is there to entice fans in Minneapolis or in Memphis to come back to the league once they’ve had a few months to forget that their teams stink?

Yes, the NFL would lose a TON of money while the players sit out, but the recovery would be exponentially faster than that of the NBA. It is not the immediacy of the lockout that these leagues need to fear, it is the long term ramifications. Between the NFL and the NBA, the road to recovery will be MUCH rockier for the hoopsters.

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The Risky Draft Declaration Debate… Don’t Be a Fool, Stay in School

January 17, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Normally, I would be the guy screaming that a college football player should go pro the moment that he is deemed NFL worthy.

Unless you are a player who could use the extra year of college to help vault yourself into a much more worthwhile draft position (like moving from being a late first/early second-round selection one year to a top-ten overall projection the next), the extra year of college will probably not do you any good. In fact, you should take the money now and run, because the opportunity for a multi-million dollar contract won’t always be on the table, but while opportunity to finish your college education almost surely will be.

That is exactly the advice I would normally give to an underclassman NFL prospect. But the 2011 NFL Draft is not going to be a NORMAL draft.

What good is time spent in a gym, when it COULD be spent on the field actually keeping you fresh and in GAME-READY condition? More, what good is being drafted to an NFL franchise with the promise of a multi-million dollar contract that you can’t collect on because the league is on lockout and NOBODY is getting paid?

Well, those are exactly the prospects facing underclassmen who decided to take the early leap into the NFL.

The reason this year is different is because of the still unresolved issue with the still unresolved collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners. This is not your standard, run-of-the-mill contract negotiation, either.

Without getting into the minutiae of how each and every negotiation has processed, here is a simple breakdown of how we ended up where negotiations stand (a more thorough, but still understandable, explanation can be found here):

The current CBA was originally scheduled to expire in 2013, but owners chose to opt-out two years early. They feel that the players are taking too much of the league’s money, and have basically drawn a line in the sand, hoping to force the players into a renegotiation. With issues like an 18-game schedule, rookie salary scales, and player safety still unresolved, the likelihood of a new CBA being settled before the next season gets underway gets slimmer and slimmer.

In this situation, A plus B equals lockout.

With a lockout looming on the horizon there will still be an NFL Draft, but after that, all league operations cease. That means no trades, no rookie camps, no OTAs, and most importantly, no training camp and no regular season.

What that likely means to the group of underclassmen taking the early plunge into the NFL, is no security, and no playing time.

They will miss out on a most crucial period in their early NFL development – Rookie Camp. They will miss out on the opportunity to practice with and get to know their new teammates. They will miss out on the opportunity to test their mettle and learn from playing with NFL veterans.

Most importantly, they will do so WITHOUT guarantee of a paycheck, and without the luxury of a safety net that previous season salaries have afforded their new teammates.

What they SHOULD have done is follow the lead of Andrew Luck. Luck, who was almost certainly going to be the top overall draft pick, has decided to forego his opportunity to enter the NFL as an underclassman to return to Stanford for his final college season.

It is true that he will gain nothing financially. But while players like Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Mark Ingram, and Ryan Mallett are sitting in a weight room somewhere just hoping that a deal gets done, Luck will be playing real, competitive football.

Now I know what you are thinking (and what Loyal Homer has probably written)… what if Luck gets hurt in his final college season? Won’t that cost him money?

Well, Sam Bradford suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder at Oklahoma, not once, but twice. When the draft came around, who went first overall? Bradford, to the tune of a six-year, $78M contract.

Adrian Peterson suffered MANY injuries over his college career, including a broken collarbone that ended his final season after only a few weeks. But that didn’t stop the Minnesota Vikings from drafting him seventh overall, and signing him to a six-year, $40.5M contract.

I think it’s safe to say that both Bradford and Peterson are doing great right now, and with sports medicine being what it is today, the likelihood of a REAL career-ending injury is very slim. Most, if not all of the underclassmen from this year, would have played out their final NCAA season without incident. Those who were injured would likely STILL not have seen it impact their NFL earning power.

It’s a simple choice – risk missing an entire year of playing time to enter a league with no structure, and most importantly, no guarantee of a paycheck, or stay in college and continue to improve your skill set ON THE FIELD in REAL competition, while adding to your future value in the NFL.

For those who took early eligibility, they have essentially put a blindfold on and dove head-first into a career without having any idea what to expect. By waiting one more season, this year’s underclassmen could have let all the NFL CBA dust settle. Then, when they finally DID take the plunge, they would know exactly what they were getting into.

They would have at least maintained, if not improved, their NFL value… and would have done so by staying in game-ready condition for a whole year while the rest of the NFL spent their time lifting weights and twiddling their thumbs for zero salary.

Any gambler worth his or her salt will tell you that in this case, the risk is just not worth the reward. So to quote Mr. T – “Don’t be a fool. Stay in school.”

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The NBA Contraction Debate Verdict

October 28, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Babe Ruthless.

Considering the fact that I am an expectant father, with a child due just a few weeks from now, I have already developed an irrational fear of the word ‘Contraction.’ And it seems that, considering the context of this debate, that negative connotation is quite justified.

To boil this debate down into its most simplistic form, and to put it into terms that many people around the country can truly relate to, the conversation about NBA contraction is really a conversation about layoffs.

The “L” word

The business (NBA) is losing money, and cannot afford to operate under its current structure. As a result, the business (NBA) is forced to choose which is the lesser of two evils – force a pay cut, or proceed with layoffs.

As Babe Ruthless points out, contraction should be perceived only as a viable option when there are none other worth pursuing. A decision like this would not only affect the teams facing the cull, but would also seriously impact the cities and fans which support, and are supported by, those franchises.

For a league like the NBA who already is struggling financially, the bad PR from league contraction and the fan reaction from those cities which would lose their franchises could be very damaging.

But all those premonitions of gloom and doom from Babe Ruthless still did not provide enough justification to me that league contraction was the wrong decision to make. As such, I am awarding the verdict for this debate to Sports Geek, although for a moment, Sports Geek’s own argument almost convinced me to go the other way.

Identifying the root cause

Sports Geek points to franchises such as the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers as teams with winning records that were losing money. So out of curiosity, I checked the attendance numbers from last season to see how those two clubs (for example) fared at the gate.

According to last year’s statistics, the Mavericks averaged 19,994 fans per home game at American Airlines Center, an arena that holds 20,000 at capacity. Likewise, the Blazers averaged 20,497 per game at the Rose Garden Arena, which holds 20,630 spectators at capacity.

Folks, those are sold out seasons.

The Blazers and the Mavericks are not suffering from lack of fan support. And when you look at the rest of the league, only the Philadelphia 76’ers, New Jersey Nets, and Memphis Grizzlies played to an average crowd of less than 75% capacity (compare that to the MLB, where 17 different teams drew average crowds of fewer than 75% capacity).

The real problem is, DESPITE that fan support for home teams, that the cost of paying the athletes has exceeded the amount of revenue that is even possible to be gained. If a sellout will only draw in $2M in sales for each game, how can you be expected to pay $3M in salary?

And even with revenues being generated from TV contracts, advertising, and merchandise, these teams are STILL paying more than they are making.

Normally, this is a problem that can be corrected either by a) cutting players’ salaries or b) raising ticket prices, rather than having to resort to league contraction, which Sports Geek argues is the answer. But just as I was ready to place my seal of approval and award victory to Babe Ruthless, I noticed something very interesting that ultimately changed my mind – attendance statistics for NBA teams on the road.

Big names sell games

Obviously, teams with winning records should be able to garner support from their hometown fans. But it is when those teams go on the road that you find out their value as it is perceived by the REST of the league. The New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, for example, will sell out no matter where they are playing. They appeal not only to their home town fans, but they are a draw to EVERYONE.

So, how did the Blazers and Mavs fare on the road?

Portland averaged a road crowd of only 16,546 (nearly 4000 fewer fans than when they played at home), while Dallas drew 17,129 (nearly 3000 fewer fans). And that trend was not exclusive to those two teams, either.

In fact, there were only two teams in the entire NBA (the Cavaliers and the Lakers), who averaged sellouts on the road. And the not too surprising reason those two teams managed the feat is simple – LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Every other team (even championship contenders like the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, and Phoenix Suns) failed to attract people on the road to the same extent that they managed at home. A problem, as Sports Geek points out, created by an utter lack of star power in the league.

The gap in marketability between players like LeBron or Kobe, and players like Mehmet Okur and Chris Kamen is far too great. There just aren’t enough “faces” in the NBA to fully support 30 different NBA franchises. Then, when you compound that lack of star power with the grossly overinflated contract amounts that the athletes are earning today, you find yourself in a very bleak financial situation.

People just don’t care to go out on a Wednesday night in the middle of December to see Carlos Delfino lead the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in scoring against the Roy Hibbert led Indiana Pacers.

Real value must be established

In a concentrated market, Chris Bosh is not a $100M athlete. Likewise, a guy like Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who averages only 24 minutes per game over his career, is not a $50M athlete. But when you dilute the talent level to the extent that the NBA has, players like Bosh and Varejao BECOME superstars simply by comparison to the weaker talent around them. They APPEAR to be superstars, and can cash in as such.

A concentrated player pool, played within a league of fewer teams, would allow for a much better product to be put on the court. Player salaries would more accurately reflect the talent levels in the league, and the “business” of professional basketball could be righted.

It’s time to trim the fat. Addition by subtraction is the answer, and an NBA in concentrated form will help everyone remaining in the league to be successful for many years to come.

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The NBA Contraction Debate

October 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Babe Ruthless.

It seems these days like the only people making money in the NBA are the athletes.

While players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Amar’e Stoudemire were recently awarded contracts at or beyond $100M each, the collective NBA teams posted a net loss last year of $400M.

Obviously, a business of any kind cannot sustain itself if it continues to lose money.

So in an effort to combat this financial predicament, NBA commissioner David Stern has stated a desire to see the players’ collective salaries reduced by $750M-$800M in order to reverse the negative trend so the NBA can get a return on investment.

One such idea that has been floated to help support this process – an idea that will be on the table at the upcoming owners’ meetings – is the possibility of a league contraction, as some within the league feel that a reduction of teams would provide a remedy to the imbalance between player salary and league revenue.

Which brings us to our debate topic for today: With the financial losses posted by the NBA recently, and the prospect of more losses on the horizon, should the NBA contract some teams?

Clearly this is not a decision that David Stern or the collective NBA owners will be taking lightly. Their continued goal to this point has always been the growth of the league, and expansion has been a major part of that growth. The NBA is arguably at its peak in terms of popularity among the fans, and to face the prospect of eliminating teams from the league would be extremely disappointing for everyone involved.

In evaluating today’s topic, Sports Geek believes that NBA contraction is the way to go, and will argue that “trimming the fat” will be better for the league as a whole. Meanwhile, Babe Ruthless feels that contraction would not be the best solution, and will argue that the NBA should not consider this as a viable option.

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The Scariest Three Words in Sports Debate… What if N.F.L. Stood for No Football League?

August 9, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer.

Imagine you live in Phoenix. You just read a news release that a fan favorite from the Boston Red Sox was being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. Are you concerned?

Or imagine that you live in Kansas City, and you just found out that the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has announced he is relocating the team to Los Angeles. Does that affect you at all?

The answer to those questions is No. While the people in Boston or Tampa Bay may perceive the above headlines as being bad or even scary news, folks everywhere else simply perceive them as news.

Now, imagine it’s a bright Sunday morning in September. You can be anywhere in this great nation of ours – Spokane, Oklahoma City, or Tallahassee. Maybe you are returning home from church. Maybe you are just waking up from a long night of partying. No matter what led you to this point in time, you only have one thing on your mind right now. You are looking forward to plopping down on the sofa, filling up a plate or bowl full of junk food, and turning on the TV to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, as NFL games should be getting set to kick off any minute.

But instead of being bombarded by the cackling madness of Howie, Terry, and the rest of the NFL pre-game show when you flip on Fox, you are greeted instead by a conversation between Hawkeye, Radar, Hot Lips, and Klinger in a military hospital tent from a M*A*S*H rerun.

“That’s okay,” you figure. “The NFC game must be blacked out locally, so I’ll just flip over to CBS and catch the AFC game of the week.” Once you flip to CBS you are met with Sam, Woody, Cliff, Norm, and the rest of the Cheers gang all sitting around the bar on another Boston afternoon circa 1987.

Where’s the football?!

And it is precisely at that point that you remember having heard the worst three words that could possibly uttered in sports, and your heart breaks all over again.

NFL. Player. Lockout.

Out of all the possible three-word combinations that could be used, from “You’ve been traded” to “Career ending injury,” only an NFL player lockout carries implications grand enough to affect the entire sports world in America.

For many years running, the NFL has been far and away the most popular sport in the United States. The thriving popularity and success of Fantasy Football serves as testament, as fantasy football alone has grown into a $1B industry. The simple fact is that people LOVE the NFL.

Ticket prices are rising, the economy is slumping, and attendance figures are still rising every season. The Dallas Cowboys just built a $1B stadium, where suite owners have to cough up as much as $90 just to by a pizza, and still people flock to the NFL.

The NFL has become the single most entertaining sport in America. It provides us with drama, excitement, with just a dash of danger for flavor. It evokes the most passion in us, and even though the season is played out over only 17 Sundays each year, it manages to consume nearly 12 months of conversation.

But with the impending expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the prospective lack of any hope for a new CBA on the immediate horizon, there is a painful, all-too-real possibility that we could not have an NFL season next year.

Just think about that for a moment.

Scary.

Last night, I (and millions of my football loving brethren) enjoyed watching the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural pre-season game for the 2010 season. I am also getting ready for not one, but TWO, fantasy football drafts. Imagine if that wasn’t going to happen.

I can take Brett Favre’s retirement, and I will be just fine if another Major League baseball slugger is found to have used Performance Enhancing Drugs.

PLEASE don’t take away my football!

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