Right now the landscape looks bleak for NBA owners, players, and fans. Without a strong positive effort at the negotiating table it’s very possible that the 2012 NBA season could be canceled. And so far it’s hard to find any positive news on a potential deal. In this dreary time, a little creative thinking and the ability to take a few risks by the players could make life better for themselves and the fans. And all they need to do is create their own league.
With nothing else to do, the players have turned their talents to charity games, which lack the feel of true game play. Sometimes it’s fun to see who dunked on who, and how many points player X put up. But in the end the games are meaningless because they are missing one element: competition. If I could use an analogy, charity games is to an NBA game what Star Magazine is to Time. Having the players continue with just exhibition games would be like having a season full of All Star Games. Eventually the novelty would wear off.
So how would I form a player owned league?
The primary thought of creating a player’s league is making a format that would foster competition. Obviously the goal would be to crown a championship team in some sort of elimination process. The easiest way is to run a tournament. However the problem with a tournament is the few number of games an individual team could see. A single elimination tournament would mean that half the league would only play a single game. A double elimination tournament would only be slightly better, but both would have another problem: the inability to attract fans to individual teams. Since a tournament would be hosted in a handful of locales, there would be nothing to tie the basketball fan to a certain team. For instance which team would Knick fans root for: the one with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett, the one with Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Paul, or the one with Renaldo Balkman and Dwight Howard? Even if they chose one, what are the odds that they’ll get to see their team live?
Hence a more successful run player league would stage a handful of games at a home location to connect fans with teams. These games could be a regular season or perhaps more aptly named qualifier season. Let’s assume this league has 12 teams split into two divisions (East & West), where each team plays their division-mates twice. That’s a 10 game season, which would give enough data to seed the teams come playoff time. A single elimination tournament where the top 2 teams in each division get byes, and the other 4 do a single elimination game (3vs6, 4vs5) to play-in. Each round increases the number of games in the series. So the first round is a 3 game series, the second round is a 5 game series, and the finals go best of 7 games. This kind of format would give the league a total 60 qualifying games, and another 22-37 tournament games. If they play a conservative 2 games per week, I estimate it would take about 3 months to finish a complete season.
Of course having a competitive league and tournament would be the first step, there would still need to be something to attract fans to the league. Becoming a fan of a sports team usually involves a tight bond that is unbreakable. If tomorrow the Knicks traded their entire team for the Oklahoma Thunder, Knick fans would accept their new players as their own. Hence fandom is often tied to a singular attribute, which in the case of professional sports is the franchise. In this league that tie wouldn’t exist, but it can hook into two things that the fan already relates to. First is the city or region, which most fans live near or have another tie to. So the New York team would likely gain fans from the Tri-State area, ex-patriated New Yorkers, or those with family or friends in New York. The second is a player which might be on their current favorite team.
Therefore it’d be best that each team have a local representative. Take the best players from 12 different teams in the league, and have each one be team captain for player’s new league. Hence the New York team might get Amar’e or Carmelo as their team captain, the Boston team might get Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, and the Los Angeles team would likely get Pau Gasol (just kidding, I mean Blake Griffin). Team nicknames could be based on the captain, and the New York Melos might be a subtle tip of the hat to the last century when the Cleveland Naps were named after their best player.
Once each team has a captain, the draft would occur. A random order would be set and the captains would chose their team from a list of 250 or so eligible players in a snaked draft format. Each team would have a 15 man roster. Something like this could be televised, albeit on a channel that wouldn’t care about angering the current set of owners or even a pay-per-view event. This would be must-see-tv for NBA fans based on the drama alone. Which players would go too high? Too low? Which player would make the best/worst GM? How many players would seek out or snub fellow teammates? If the players wanted to make it even more juicy, then have the draft order based on strength of captain as seen by their peers. In other words, have the captains rank the other captains, with the lowest selecting first.
Perhaps the captains would be at their computers, much like you would at your office fantasy draft. Maybe 1-2 minutes for the first round, then a nerve racking 30 seconds from therein, with the last 5 rounds by auto-pick. In an hour or so every fan would know their starting 5. Perhaps break every round for commercials and it’s a 2 hour affair to go 10 rounds. What announcer/analyst wouldn’t drool over the prospects of overseeing such an affair?
Here is the most difficult aspect of the undertaking. Someone needs to run the whole shebang and make sure the league has home arenas (current NBA homes will be off-limits), hotels, referees, doctors, accountants, etc. The players will need a management team, or perhaps a handful of management teams to pull it off. Enough coaches could probably be found, especially among the ranks of the retired or those who have turned to the microphone for employment.
Other issues would be television coverage, sponsorship, & finding investors. In lieu of a channel picking them up, the players can attempt to have their league game sponsored on the internet. Maybe work with a powerhouse like Yahoo or Google. Of course failing to get televised would cut into their earnings. Another idea is to sell team names to sponsors, which would also help with initial investment.
Speaking of profits, a quarter to half should be split evenly among all the members of the player union (although since it’s dissolved I’m not sure how that would work) and another percentage should go to charity. Both will help their public image, and giving to their brethren will strengthen their resolve during the lockout. The rest is divided up among the teams, with the better ones making a higher percentage of money, and the players drafted higher also getting a bigger slice.
So what would the outcome of such a series of events? For the fans it would be a new take on and old fling. A Bizzaro-esque world of jumbled players and cities, feeling new and yet familiar at the same time. Most importantly it would be competitive basketball at the highest level which is what the fans yearn for.
For the players it would be a chance to show the fans that they really enjoy playing, and to show the owners that they aren’t beholden to them. Of course if the logistics of running a league become difficult and frustrating then the players might see the owners in a more favorable light.
For the owners this could be a warning call that perhaps there’s a route other than “my way or the highway.” That there are other ways to successfully run a league, and perhaps their role as facilitator is over-valued. Maybe instead of trying to use the players to fix their system, they can institute revenue sharing on their own & treat the players more like partners at the bargaining table.
And for the workers of these events it could mean a little extra dough in their pocket. Perhaps vendors can see employment in the new locales, and maybe some of the gear (t-shirts, hats) will be vogue enough to allow them to survive until the NBA starts up again.