I’ve written some lately about the NBA, which despite all its flaws is still my favorite North American professional sports league. (My favorite pro league anywhere, of course, is the English Premiership, the greatest soccer league in the world.) In particular, I’ve pondered The League’s structural issues vis a vis its big vs. small markets, and let’s be clear in understanding that the new labor deal did not fix those problems. It merely swept them under the rug for a few years where they can fester, multiply and grow really big teeth. The next labor conflict is going to be a monster bitch with ‘roid rage, and ain’t nobody interested in my ideas about what has to happen structurally to solve things long term. My on-court rules change proposals are equally doomed.
Part of what I’ve talked about is the freedom of movement question. Put briefly, the players want as much mobility as they can get (they’d love pure free agency, like what you have in pro leagues everywhere else in the world). Part of the motivation is obviously financial – more freedom means they can twist the owners for more money. But part of it – a huge part – is cultural. Some places are cooler to live than others. This matters more than you might imagine.
I’ve heard the question posed as to why the NBA has such nasty issues with its small vs. large markets when the NFL has very few such issues at all. At a casual glance this might seem like a good question, but the truth is that the NFL is so damned huge it doesn’t matter who plays in the Super Bowl. Indianapolis vs. New Orleans? Man, what a great game that was for everybody (except the Colts, anyway). But an NBA Finals between the Pacers and Hornets? David Stern’s heart just seized up a little bit.
Okay, fine, the league does better when its alpha markets succeed. But why do hoops players seem so much more destination-conscious than football players? A-Pete has no problems living in Minny. The greatest QB alive, in the estimation of many analysts and fans, seems to love Indianapolis. And so on. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were unable to lure top-flight free agents to Cleveland even with the promise of max contracts and the chance to play with best hoops player on the planet.
The difference between the leagues is cultural, and the differences are profound. Bear with me as I oversimplify just a tad to make a point. In essence, basketball is an urban sport, whereas football is a suburban and rural sport. Basketball thrives in city environments where space is at a premium. You can play full-on hoops on a few dozen square feet of asphalt or concrete, but you can’t really play football under those conditions. Football requires more room. Fields and dirt and, ideally, grass. Which means the further you get from a city center, the better your chances of finding the right conditions.
So many of your great high school basketball programs? Inner city. Great football programs, on the other hand, usually crop up out in the ‘burbs. I’m generalizing, like I say, but I’m also describing a clear tendency that I think we all recognize when we see it.
But what does this have to do with football players being willing to move to Cincinnati? At the risk of offending, there are a lot of corn-fed white boys who grew up playing football so far out in the sticks that a place like Kansas City actually seems exciting to them. It IS a big city. Meanwhile, if you’re an inner city kid, used to the pulse of a big city, a night on the town in Nashville might as well be a camping trip.
It’s not a racial thing, either, although it might seem that way. Plenty of young black men play football and seem just fine living in places like Charlotte and Jacksonville. But most of them, I’m guessing, didn’t grow up in urban environments (where they would have had a hard time finding a place to develop their blocking and tackling skills). When was the last time you heard a player, black, white or otherwise, pitching a hissy about a smaller market and booking time on ESPN to announce his Decision to take his talents to South Beach? Hell, when was the last time any NFL player made a lot of noise about the Dolphins? In football, this seems not to even intrude on the players’ awareness.
What this adds up to is that the NBA’s player movement issue goes well beyond money, and it won’t be solved by any amount of salary capping, luxury taxing or revenue sharing. Remember – LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh all took less money to play in Miami. Remember that the next time you hear somebody telling you that all they care about is money.
As the NBA brain trust begins planning for the next labor conflict, which I think is due in about six years, it needs to take these cultural concerns into account. What it does about them I don’t know, but the problems are profound.
Heretofore I’ve talked in terms of small markets and large markets, but in truth there are three kinds of NBA markets right now. It might be fun, if not outright instructive, to have a look at the categories.
Category 1: The Riviera
The destination. The big time. The brightest lights, the fastest women, red velvet ropes and fountains overflowing with Cristall. These cities combine unparalleled night life with a top-notch commitment to winning (luxury tax? Here, let me light that cigar with a C-note). At the end of the year you either won the title or you came up short of your goal. (Granted, the Knicks always come up short and the Heat are nouveau riche, but expectations are expectations regardless.) If you grew up a competitive athlete who thrived on the energy, the vibe of the city, this is where you have to be. There aren’t many Riviera teams:
- LA (Lakers)
- New York
Category 2: The Career Town
You know how regular people sometimes move to a new city for a job, even if that city is really nothing special? Happens to hoops players, too. These cities and organizations are less desirable than the Riviera. Maybe smaller. Fewer bright lights. The women aren’t quite as hot and the nightclubs close up a little earlier, especially on a Monday night. The organizations often can’t afford to pay the luxury tax so you’re going to have to be resourceful. Your team probably doesn’t realistically expect to contend for the title – your measure of success may be simply making the playoffs. But you’d still go there if the money was right or if there was an anchor player who you might build a winner around, somebody like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin. These cities:
- LA (Clippers)*
- San Antonio**
- Golden State
- Oklahoma City**
* These are tough. Chicago is a huge city, although it’s not really a sexy one. There’s a good argument to be made that it ought to be a fringe Riviera market. The Clippers are in LA, but they’re the Clippers. Now, though, they have Griffin and CP3 and a set of rules that forces their cheap-ass owner to devote a certain amount of cash to salaries. Within the next couple of years they may evolve into a Riviera team. And the jury is out on Brooklyn. Great new location, rich/ambitious owner. Maybe they become a Riviera outfit, too, but it’s too early to tell.
** My gut tells me that these two are masquerading anomalies. Tim Duncan’s decision to stay in SA made them a viable franchise and if Durant stays in OKC the same will be true for the duration of his career. Without the lucky break of a freak star deciding he liked the slower pace of life, though, these teams quickly drop out of the Career Town category and into…
Category 3: Siberia
Hells no. If you’re there it’s because you’re stuck there. You got drafted and your free agency hasn’t kicked in or you’re just not good enough to get the attention of a better franchise. Or you’re just one of those miserable bastards drawing a check. Even then, though, you’d rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Who are we talking about?
- New Orleans
- Salt Lake City
The news for the owners is that nothing they’re ever going to be able to do will make SLC cool. Yeah, you get the occasional Stockton or Malone who’s okay with that, but there aren’t enough of those guys to go around to make all of your cities viable. And it’s hard to build any kind of continuity around a sham. The fans know when a player is biding his time. Trust me, I live in Denver and Melo was counting the seconds until his escape, despite the fact that the 5280 is one of the most desirable cities to live in the entire nation.
For everybody except the kid who grew up in the big city and sees everything else as Bumfuck.