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A New League? A New Alternative?

As we're stuck in the mire of the NBA lockout there's been a lot of talk about forming an alternative league. With the owners desire to radically change the way money is shared and a seeming willingness to lose part or all of the impending NBA season, jt appears the players have run out of options. So... why not an alternative league? I'm not talking about a barnstorming/exhibition thing with no real coaches and no defense, I'm talking about a real competitive league. 

A few people have written formally about this idea, like Dave Berri, who's discussed it several times, here and here, and Stuart Anderson in Forbes. Bill Simmons and Jay Caspian Kang did their version in Grantland, here. Berri's original suggestion was that perhaps large non-NBA cities might want to back franchises without the benefit (or detriment) of traditional owner-figures. Anderson's suggestion was more vague, a player-owned league with individual general managers who would run each team. Simmons idea  was played for laughs, but suggested a single-owner league with eight franchises. Finally, our own John R has suggested a league with former-players in ownership roles. But are any of these ideas practical, can any of them work? Let's see if we can figure it out.

First of all, why do we want to start a new league? Stuart Anderson suggests that it's really the best way to force the NBA owners into settling the strike and recognizing that the players are the most important part of the game. Well, that's great, as fans we'd all like the NBA to be playing games (and how about NOW)! But if you're going to really take the time, money, and effort to start an enterprise as complex, big, and expensive as a pro sports league, I think you'd better having more in mind than just manipulating the bargaining table. (And I think the current owners know that.)
Dave Berri's most recent article expresses a similar thought, if the players want to gain leverage against the current owners, they should establish their own league. But his earlier article actually was in response to a different problem. After analyzing the Sacramento Kings situation, where the city itself has taken an active role in trying to save its franchise, he suggests perhaps that large-market cities without NBA franchises might be coaxed into sponsoring a new league. He names sixteen potential cities in the U.S. and Canada which have populations larger than Salt Lake City. But is this a practical idea? How would you approach these cities, through their mayor's and governor's offices and try and convince politicians to put public funds into a risk-filled business model? What elected official is going to back that gamble?

Well then, how about a "player-owned" league? Players would form some sort of communal group that establishes franchises and divies up participants from a pool. But could that work? How do the players get paid? Is everyone on equal footing? Does LeBron James, who is likely to bring in millions of dollars of revenue, get paid the same (or have the same number of ownership shares) as Ryan Gomes? No? Who decides these things? What happens when a player who's vested in the league gets cut and finds himself jobless? I think the organizational headaches would be insurmountable.  

Perhaps the player's agents should run the league? But the best agents focus on one simple task... they get their players the most money they possibly can in a given market. It's oversimplification, but how do these guys go from being the ultimate capitalist weapon to being the ultimate communal participant. To me, it's a no-fit.

While not presented in any formal way, recently our beloved John R suggested a league run by wealthy, former players. I suppose his theory is that former players could be relied on to act in a respectful and altruistic manner towards the active players... though I think Michael Jordan may have disproved that theory. He seems barely interested in his own Charlotte Bobcats franchise and has been notably invisible during the recent negotiations.
The core of John's idea though is not without merit. If I understand correctly he would like to see a league that is based on a totally open-market philosophy with no  maximum individual salary cap. Superstar players get paid whatever the market will bear on whatever terms they can get. Others, bubble players, medium or lower level players will get far far less. Big markets with big pockets rule the day. It's pretty close to the way Major League Baseball works. (Does it mean the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Dodgers win every year... uh--not this year.)

There's another,  partial idea here, written by an angry former Seattle Supersonics fan. He suggests a big 18 to 24 team league that would exploit non-NBA markets and cites some FIFA data that suggest a league that size would offer the best balance of profit and competition. But he offers no alternative idea of how those teams would be owned or funded. I do like his idea of putting multiple teams in the vast and unexploited Chicago area and taking advantage of large Canadian markets. I think this is an "ABA-like" idea. (I wrote a little about the American Basketball Association recently here, if you're interested.) But the ABA wasn't really designed as an alternative to the NBA, rather the league was built to complement the older league... most of the owners in the new league bought in, looking to prove their markets viability and hoping for a merger or absorption by the older league. But that's not a viable alternative now, part of the problem with the NBA is that they've over-expanded (or wrongly expanded).   

The Kang/Simmons idea seems to me, superior to any of the above... they pick out one super-rich guy, in this case Larry Ellison (who apparently bid recently on the Golden State Warriors) and suggest he bankroll an entire eight team league.  He puts his franchises in non-NBA cities with ready-made arenas and/or more-or-less proven sports fan bases. The fastest way to get a league going is to have a single guy with a fat checkbook who can weather the inevitable storms that a new business might suffer. And, if you're careful about where you put your franchises, keep the number small (eight is a good number), and avoid current NBA markets, perhaps you could survive when the NBA comes back to life.

And that's probably the biggest problem all these ideas face. Larry Ellison (by any other name) isn't going to give NBA players "outs" in their contracts that will allow them to resume their NBA lives when NBA ownership decides it wants to play again. Under those terms, how many star players can he attract?  How many can he afford? In order to keep the players it signs, teams will have to pay them and pay them a lot. And what happens when the big players get paid a lot? The little players get paid a little. Your success is based ensures potentially divisive stratification. What happens when your number one player gets a salary of $40 million and your fifth starter gets a salary of $1 million, or your third guy off the bench gets $250,000? 

Don't forget, the current players association is run by middle level guys. Guys who are protecting long contracts and the mid-level exception. There's no room for that stuff in our new league, is there? And the new league is, by necessity, small. If it's only composed of eight teams, you're gonna have a hundred to a hundred twenty players under contract. What happens to the other two hundred and eighty guys currently playing in the NBA? So those lower level guys (and their agents) aren't going to support this new league, instead they'll probably throw in with the NBA for a shorter, lesser deal. 

Even if you find a way to surmount all those hurdles, if you find a really rich guy, some brilliant Steve Jobs-like visionary who can cut through all the crap and has the patience and wherewithal to pay out a ton of money before he sees any profit, if he's ready and willing to face the inevitable competition of the NBA owners he's trying to bury, how quickly can he get his new league rolling? Even with a small army full of lawyers, accountants, coaches, trainers, arena employees (all who must be paid), with miles and miles of contracts and paperwork in front of him, how long is it going to take before he's sitting courtside watching a game? A year? Two? Those numbers seem optimistic, don't they?

Solving this particular labor disagreement by creating a new league is not going to work. It's too late. If the players were looking for leverage they should have considered an alternative league a year, or better, two years ago. But (as briefly suggested recently by Steve Perrin here) what about the next CBA? There's been talk of an optional renegotiation in the new deal after five or six years, (or perhaps the deal could be for negotiated down to an even shorter term). With a lot of young stars in the league, (Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, et al.), shouldn't these players and their agents be quietly working out a plan for an alternative league down the line? At the very least, a carefully developed working model would (in 2015 or 2017) give them much better leverage against the strength of the current NBA hierarchy.