Could the NBA's player-movement "problem" be its most powerful tool for growth?

Could the NBA's player-movement "problem" be its most powerful tool for growth?

Once, the NBA was a radically different place than it is now.

Players had virtually no control whatsoever over their careers once they signed with a team, and free agency simply didn’t exist.

Sometimes, teams would simply be dissolved by owners — pay outstanding — with players having no recourse for the money owed them. The league could organize more than 20 “exhibition” games per season without offering players a penny of the proceeds, force players to appear for media events without compensation, and even require them to pay for their own moving expenses upon being traded despite earning a comparatively paltry $8,000 per season in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Then, Boston Celtic Bob Cousy organized a union to represent players’ interests, and through the work of fellow Celtic Tommy Heinsohn and then-Cincinnati Royals’ (now Sacramento Kings) Oscar Robertson, gradually began a process of securing a league more favorable for players, beginning a slow swing of a pendulum still in motion today in the direction of player interests.

The union secured protections from all the grievances noted above, raised pay and profit sharing, provided pensions — though a threatened strike on the eve of the 1964 All-Star game was needed to secure pensions — and, eventually, the right for players to have free agency of any sort in 1988.

This last change transformed the NBA more than maybe any other singular policy change has, before or since, and despite the complaints about how the league has shifted to being a “player’s league” — it most certainly isn’t, though it’s beginning to become one (more on that shortly) — and “ruined” the sport, it is somehow more popular both in the US and abroad, than it has ever been before.

How can a “ruined” sport be so popular, so fast-growing, and so, frankly, damned engaging?

This is not to say, mind you, that there is a direct correlation between that popularity and free agency and its related baggage, but the connection is strong, and I’m going to make a case as to why that is, but more importantly, in contrast to those who make such claims of the ruination of the league and how poor, poor billionaire’s travails in trying to “team-build” through the draft is actually creating an inferior product for both fans and owners alike, the latter too lost in conventional wisdom to see the golden goose in their laps.

Perhaps more than any other sport, and certainly more than any other US sport, the NBA has created a cultural phenomena that comes with — but is also separate from — the sport. Players are personalities in ways baseball, football, hockey, and soccer players are not. They may indeed be every bit as much a celebrity, but the degree and depth of issues folded into NBA team and player fandoms far outstrip anything surrounding other sports’ leading figures or franchises enjoys.

This is not, of course, without controversy — and even that seems to be malleable to fit the league’s profile in a positive manner. While other leagues struggled with making space for political statements on several important contemporary social issues, sometimes becoming exceptionally negative spectacles to the point where they begin to overshadow the game itself, the NBA found ways to embrace the controversies in ways which generated similar media attention without the additional negativity, supporting player positions where other leagues devised ways to silence them.

This latter bit is especially salient, as the early adoption of player empowerment in the NBA has colored the perspective of the league and its engagement with fans for nearly its entire history, placing it at the forefront of several important social movements from the Civil Rights era up to the present, yet has seen little to no fallout, growing in popularity steadily over the last three decades to become the most exportable of all major US sports.

The NBA is even exporting champions, with the Toronto Raptors being the first team in the history of the league to win it all while based outside the United States. There are more players in the league born outside the US than at any time in its history, and the league is considering expansion south of the border to my current home in Mexico City in the near-term future while continuing to play more overseas exhibition and regular-season games each season.

Circling back to those who claim that free agency is “ruining” the league, it’s quite clear that it isn’t. With a dozen offices abroad to oversee seven academies designed to develop overseas prospects for the NBA in the absence (or is that blessing?) of a collegiate system, broadcasting games in over 200 countries and territories, the league is poised to become the world’s #2 overall team sport behind soccer.

If this is ruination, I’d like some more, please.

Jokes aside though, while there is no way to “prove” the popularity of the sport is driven by player empowerment, the narratives which surround their arrival, development, and movement — and perhaps even more important, their impact on and consumption of other types of popular culture and media — in turn positions the league’s stars (and often even second- and third- tier players as taste-makers, creating all kinds of synergistic opportunities for the league in terms of marketing and social engagement).

People follow the drama of the league, tuned in like never before across increasingly far-flung locations on diverse forms of media, following not only the stats, but the music, fashion, cooking, and business ventures of their favorite — and most hated — NBA players.

The very existence of this reality is predicated on the freedom of players — to speak, act, and change employers like the rest of us, except with a complex and vibrant platform that celebrates their individuality where other leagues try to smash a chaotic mess of personalities into uniforms and positions, with all other forms of individuality tolerated at best, and often actively suppressed by ownership.

I argue it’s this very perspective that is choking the life out of competing major sports, particularly the NFL; steadfastly wedded to an antiquated worldview shrinking with the passing of each increasingly older fan who feels comfortable with their athletes being seen and not heard, a powerful tool for fan engagement goes out the window with the silence the league enforces.

Earlier, I hinted that while owners and some fans of the NBA who perceive the degree of player movement (I find it hard to believe anyone — even team owners — would argue that player movement itself is bad for the league after three decades of evidence to the contrary) being a problem may be wrong about it “ruining” the league, I am also sympathetic it makes building a team difficult.

It’s likely clear, also, I don’t really care how hard it makes incredibly wealthy people’s jobs as team owners, but you’d think, as a card-carrying Boston Celtics fan I’d be sympathetic to the difficulties it creates for a fanbase to spend years carefully assembling the tools to build a multi-season championship contender only to see player movement nuke those plans in the span of weeks.

Rest assured, I am.

And there are plenty of small fixes out there that will likely improve the process; proposals to expand free agency (though not signing) from the moment after a championship is won to tip-off of the first game of the regular season would likely improve things for all involved, as would penalties with teeth for parties publicly tampering with other team’s players in the midst of an ongoing season.

But I am very circumspect about the proposition of any thing that would substantively restrict player movement further, based on just how much it’s fueled interest in the league in recent years, and instead, propose leaning into the idea of player movement.

How much more exciting would the league be if financial risk for players was covered by insurance instead of long contracts frequently saddling teams with bad or unplayable players? If teams had more regular access to top-tier players not only through encouraging players to change teams in their prime through shorter contracts and other, more radical approaches?

Stay tuned for a radical re-imagining of the league in just such a fashion; in the next installment of my summer series of articles on what the league’s future could one day become, I’ll paint a picture of what a truly player-oriented league might look like — and how it could actually improve the product we all love to consume while also making team-building a less fraught proposition for team owners.

Buckle up, because things are going to get…weird.

Feature photo –  Tony Avelar / Brian Babineau / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington