How best to improvise a new professional basketball season

by on November 23, 2011 at 6:29 am in Sports | Permalink

Since a regular NBA season is looking unlikely, what are the remaining options?  I don’t see why the lead players should be so keen to start up in Europe.  What if Comcast (or cash-rich Google?) said to a bunch of top stars something like the following?:

We’ll take care of renting the arenas, you all just show up and play.  We’ll create four teams, heavy with stars and key role players, and let them barnstorm in a multi-round tournament, twenty-four games total, with elimination games toward the end.  Past stars, like Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley (no MJ!), will be the coaches and maybe sometimes the referees as well.  We’re going to pay you all with equity, with the final return depending on how much the TV ads sell for.  There also will be bonuses for the winners, so you don’t all mess around like in the All-Star game.

If more than four teams can be managed and coordinated, so much the better.  At the end of a tournament the world champion is announced, and come September or October you can pit that team against the Dallas Mavericks.

One of the four teams can be non-American-born players only, to get the rest of the world involved.

Couldn’t this be…um…more fun, or as much fun, as the so-called regular season?

What else could we do?

1 Florian November 23, 2011 at 7:02 am

I guess I just don’t understand the logic of American team sports.
But I just don’t see the point.

These would be 100% artificial teams.
How can anyone be a fan of such a team? How can there be any kind of emotional involvement by the audience? Who cares if team “Google 1” or “Google 2” wins?
And without that involvement: Why would anyone care for the outcome of the games or want to watch them?

Even if this setup would be appealing to an American audience, there is simply no way how a “foreign born team” would get “the rest of the world involved”.

2 arne.b November 23, 2011 at 7:10 am

What’s the problem? There is only one player from my country in the NBA, and if I follow the NBA, I hope his team wins, without caring much for the others, no matter whether there are 30 of them or 3.

And what makes a team non-artificial? (Asks someone whose home town’s football team was the first to field 11 foreign born players (out of 11, for those unfamiliar with actual football ;-)) for a match in the top-level domestic league.)

3 Corey November 23, 2011 at 7:53 am

Perhaps the fun comes from watching proffesionals perform the sport at a high level of skill rather than deciding which nation is the “better” one?

4 Cliff November 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

In basketball, the individual star players are everything and people root for their favorite players. (Not to say people don’t root for their “home” teams, of course)

5 Jason November 23, 2011 at 11:20 am

See FreeDarko’s idea of liberated fandom.

6 DKN November 24, 2011 at 3:14 am

Yes, it would be unlike most professional sports, where it makes complete sense for fans to identify with the teams and players.

7 Newman November 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

So basically a season of games with the same competitive flavor as the all star games? I’m not a hardcore fan but I wouldn’t bother watching more than one. They games wouldn’t count for anything the players won’t play as hard because they don’t want to risk injury unless they have a guaranteed contract in place.

“What else could we do?”
Watch college basketball. The NCAA tournament probably produces as many exciting games and story lines as the average NBA playoffs. Of course it’s nice to have both, as last year illustrated.

8 Newman November 23, 2011 at 7:16 am


“They games wouldn’t count for anything the players” should be
“The games wouldn’t count for anything AND the players”

9 JP1 November 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm

No, Cowen included provisions to help the players take the game more seriously than an All Star game. Also, to the extent the players treat a mini-league as a middle finger to the NBA owners, and as a way of increasing their leverage, they would have an incentive to play hard.

We could watch college basketball. Except that apart from the Tournament, college basketball sucks. The gap between the quality of play in college and the NBA is enormous. Even when bad NBA teams play, you’ll still see more impressive and beautiful plays than in virtually any college basketball game. Plus, the college game with its 35 second shot clock, pure zone defenses and closer 3 point line make for a boring style of basketball. College hoops often devolves into a glorified jump shooting contest, where offense consists of swinging the ball around the perimeter before jacking up 3 pointers.

10 Rjb November 23, 2011 at 7:44 am

Wouldn’t the rules have to be changed enough to avid IP infringement?

11 Jonathan November 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

Rules of games aren’t protected by copyright (A specific write up of the rules is, but not the rules themselves). They can be protected by patents, but obviously any original patents (which I doubt there are any) would have expired long ago. Any recent “innovations” that the NBA could have still under patent would be minor tweaks at best and could be ignored.

12 Corey November 23, 2011 at 7:50 am

Here’s an idea. We get two managers one for USA and one for the rest of the world. Each manager has 5 coaches at his command and each coach has a normal sized roster of players. Then one manager will choose one of his coaches to play against the opposing managers choice. Upon defeat the losing manager will choose a different coach to play. Single elimination with the goal being for one manager to defeat all the teams of the opposing manager.

Kind of a strange format but I’d argue the games would be a lot more interesting and fun to watch if the managers got to choose which teams would play one by one. Obviously the amount of games in total would vary a lot because one team could defeat all the others if they did’nt lose a game. Some teams might not even see play. Just an idea to ponder.

13 chuck martel November 23, 2011 at 8:12 am

Q: What’s the least valuable thing in the world?

A: A first quarter NBA score.

14 Matt H. November 23, 2011 at 8:21 am

Florian hit the nail on the head with the first comment. NBA fans are loyal to specific teams. If I’m a Bulls fan and a secondary league is created I could care less that Derrick Rose plays for Google. I’ve invested all my time and devotion in the past to cheering for the Bulls regardless of the makeup of the team. The players wouldn’t approach such a league with the same intensity either even with commensurate pay. Kids grow up dreaming of playing “in the NBA” more so than just professional basketball. If they aren’t playing for the same trophy that Bird, Jordan, and Kobe have won they won’t get the point. Fleeing to Europe is simply a way to bide time until they feel the real league is back.

15 Cliff November 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

Not really. The NBA is a star-driven sport. It would also have the novelty factor of getting to see different players play together in a serious (non-All Star) environment.

16 Zach November 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Totally agreed. I’d like nothing more in professional sports than contested games between the best possible teams someone’s willing to pay for. Baseball basically works this way; pro soccer does. There’s no reason basketball can’t be the same.

17 Zach November 23, 2011 at 10:02 am

Also, look at the OK City Thunder and the Miami Heat. Expansion teams can succeed wildly if they win; floundering teams can quickly sell out every game at much higher ticket prices after breaking the bank.

18 Urso November 23, 2011 at 11:14 am

I’m not sure the players would treat this more seriously than an All Star game.

19 Jason November 23, 2011 at 11:23 am

I think they would treat it very seriously, if for no other reason than to gain negotiating leverage against the owners.

20 Urso November 23, 2011 at 11:56 am

I seriously doubt the players think like that. They aren’t motivated to play hard by some concept of gaining an upper hand in negotiating; they’re motivated to win an NBA ring. I just don’t see them having the same motivation to win the invitational. And God help you if one of them gets seriously injured during this thing.

21 derek November 23, 2011 at 9:20 am

Agreed with Cliff. With the closest NBA team only 2.5 hours away, I have zero loyalty to any team. I care only about players and quality of play, and the teams for which I cheer change year to year (month to month?) based almost purely on basketball aesthetics. If a pleasing player gets traded to another team, I change my loyalties if high quality play changes to the new team.

If other basketball leagues were of passable quality, I would be happy to watch them. I probably just won’t be watching basketball this year, as my standards are way too high for even the best college programs.

22 November 23, 2011 at 8:29 am

I like your idea (I’m an NBA fan though). I’d add that we should do televised one-on-one and two-on-two games. For cash and bragging rights.

23 Cliff November 23, 2011 at 9:06 am


24 8 November 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

What else could we do? Watch hockey.

25 Ted Craig November 23, 2011 at 8:55 am

A friend’s company in Toronto had a box at the Raptors games for years and often gave the tickets away to employees because clients had no interest in the games. Then the NHL season was canceled.

26 Ted Craig November 23, 2011 at 8:54 am
27 Tom November 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Now there is another season I’d like to see cancelled.

28 Greg Finley November 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

Thinking on the margin here: a lot of the commenters are saying that it wouldn’t be nearly as good as the real NBA, but that’s the not relevant comparison. A Google league would probably be a better use of these players’ time than sitting around doing nothing.

Though it might hamper them in future labor negotiations, by revealing that their reservation wage (at least for one season) is pretty low.

29 FYI November 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

Can anyone explain why the big american leagues are this ‘legal monopoly’ that they are? What is the history of this?

The best possible thing would be to have another real league come in and create new teams. Actually, just the possibility of that happening would be enough to break the current impasse and we would have the NBA back.

There is no aspect in America that is less american than the way these leagues operate. We should give them french names.

30 Ted Craig November 23, 2011 at 10:14 am

That’s happened (USFL, ABA, WHL) and it was good for each sport.

31 PKSully November 23, 2011 at 11:26 am

I totally agree. The English Premier League is so much closer to a free market than any of our (U.S.) sport leagues. But the restrictions on age, employee movement and employer expenditures and the revenue sharing in the U.S. leagues are consistent with how we accept cronyism if it’s within the “rules” even if the rules suck.

32 Claudia Sahm November 23, 2011 at 9:15 am

Tape some pick-up games with pros in a crummy gym and post on YouTube, would be simple and entertaining. Maybe throw in a voice over from a retired commentator for verbal color (or not). Who cares what the teams are or what country the players come? Let people who care primarily about money deal with revenues and legal stuff. Keep it simple. I know, a complete pipe dream…

33 Zach November 23, 2011 at 10:04 am

Search YouTube for the Drew League and follow related links; many players have been doing this.

34 Claudia Sahm November 23, 2011 at 11:09 am

Thanks for the tip Zach. Nice to see that the Internet really is a happy fantasy world…sure beats economic reality.

35 Dave November 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

Don’t forget to hold a draft! The best part of a start-from-scratch league is that fans would get to ponder and debate the draft order for all existing players.

36 RSaunders November 23, 2011 at 9:22 am

Arn Tellem’s WMG Signees v. the David Falk All Stars
and so on for all the big agents.
– we get stars
– we satisfy the agents’ egos
– we most closely replicate where the NBA was headed anyway

37 Jim November 23, 2011 at 9:23 am

Simmons wrote about this two months ago. He had 8 teams and Larry Ellison, who tried to buy the Warriors, bankrolling:

I think an attempt at a new league would cause more problems for the players than it solved. There are over 400 players missing paychecks right now; wouldn’t this nascent league populated with mostly stars only create resentment between the haves and have-nots (or have-less’s)? If I was one of the majority of players who was out of work and not invited to participate in the new league, I’d be a little bitter watching LeBron and Kobe playing on TV while I sat at home. It would make me much more inclined to vote to accept anything the NBA offered.

38 King Cynic November 23, 2011 at 9:25 am

I plan to celebrate that the most boring North American team sport is on the verge of cancellation. Now we just have to find a way to get rid of auto racing (all varieties).

39 Neil November 23, 2011 at 10:21 am

How dare you call anything but baseball the most boring North American sport!

Baseball is the only sport — the only THING, probably — whose defenders will counter your assertion of its boringness by responding “That’s the point!”

40 King Cynic November 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I find baseball exciting. It actually takes skill to hit or throw a baseball, and the outcome is unpredictable. Basketball at all levels, but especially at the NBA level, suffers from the problem that scoring is too easy. Games quickly become repetitive and somnolent.

41 byomtov November 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I too find baseball exciting – it’s by far my favorite sport. Of course you do have to know a few things, pay attention, and maybe even think a bit when you watch.

Regardless, anyone who can watch tennis has infinitely more tolerance for boredom than I do.

42 msgkings November 23, 2011 at 4:39 pm

And anyone who can watch golf has another level of tolerance above even that

43 Richard Gadsden November 24, 2011 at 2:52 am


And I love cricket.

44 DKN November 24, 2011 at 3:17 am

Yeah, cricket wins any tedium competition hands down.

And I like cricket and baseball. I think they are useful preparation for the eternity of the afterlife.

45 prior_approval November 23, 2011 at 9:42 am

‘Since a regular NBA season is looking unlikely’
Wait – I seem to recall someone on the Internet pointing out the players would not so obviously act against their own economic interest as to not play this season.

Here’s the (MR at second hand – so coy) quote – ‘Canceling the whole season over 2.5 percent of BRI is insane for the players.’

Though credit is due where credit is due – though the prediction of how insane it would be for the players to care about their terms for playing basketball seems to have come a cropper, at least one person is thinking about how scabs would look on the court. Which recognizes at least one basic truth – without players on the court, there is no basketball season.

Best satirical site on the web.

46 Urso November 23, 2011 at 11:16 am

The more you post it, the more clever it becomes!

47 prior_approval November 23, 2011 at 11:46 am

Hah, it is just a tired trope – and some point, even mockery becomes tired and worn out.

But considering how seriously some people take themselves, it has a strangely mantra like ability to calm – after all, I actually graduated from GMU. Though back then, a certain Til Hazel, McLean good ole boy made good (why yes, he did sell the farm), was still calling the shots for Johnson, and S. Fred Singer (at the time claiming to know something about ozone depletion, before he started cashing checks from the tobacco industry), still seemed as outre as Manne (though no one expected his resignation due to the Center’s financial problems, in light of how his Emory and U. Miami schools turned out – sorry, that was a bad attempt at satire).

Certain people at GMU have made sucessful careers at being fairly facile at serving whoever is paying the bill – no reason to think that the game stopped a decade or two ago. And being tenured? – just a bonus that goes to the successful. (Or the failed – just ask Manne.)

No satire compares to the tawdry truth. Like pointing out how the unemployed should work for free, and be grateful for the chance to keep their skills current.

48 Zach November 23, 2011 at 9:56 am

Why four teams? Why not good coaches? There’s ample evidence for the existence of many folks itching to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to own terrible NBA teams with zero chance of significant success on the five-year timetable. Certainly more than four of these people would be willing to lose the small amount of money needed to finance an NBA-lite team with a good chance at success. Municipalities that are looking at huge losses from empty stadiums would probably chip in as well; public ownership/financing of arenas takes a lot of leverage out of ownerships hands.

The infrastructure is already there — look at how popular the Drew League games are with Durant and Bryant; it speaks to how terrible the NBPA is that they haven’t managed to at least make a serious threat to do this. Throw a few hundred million into the game and get a TV contract. A well-marketed league could make a ton on merchandise as well, as the teams are brand new.

49 Paul November 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

I think the so-called “die hard fans of team X” are actually casual fans who would sooner substitute by watching their city hockey of college basketball team, loyalty to a city or jersey being their thing. The junkie/aficionado wants good basketball, which this promises to be so long as players have sufficient incentive to play hard. For me, this is a closer substitute than college basketball, which is nearly un-watchable.

And, following Jim, let’s give credit to Simmons for a rather detailed imagining of such an enterprise.

50 davidb November 23, 2011 at 10:33 am

I love it! The one thing I would like to see in addition – though I think costs would be way too huge – would be a total of 16 teams. At first, they play a few exhibition games, then a committee of coaches ex-players vote à-la-NCAA for the team rankings. From there sweet 16 Round Robin!

51 Dustin November 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

I think that if the players really wanted to play ball and make some money they would organize 4 1-on-1 tournaments the winners of which face off in a more hyped up final tournament. It would satisfy their massive egos while making a few bucks. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to organize because there would be few venues to rent. There wouldn’t really need to be much organizational structure. To be honest it would be a bigger draw than regular season NBA.

Could you imagine how many viewers Kobe vs LeBron in a 1-on-1 game would bring? I think most people would rather see that than any other finals match-up in recent memory.

52 msgkings November 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I agree Kobe-LeBron would get a ton of interest, but I’d wager it’d be no contest. LeBron is significantly bigger (and younger), and in a one on one game you can’t get screens or use passes or fast breaks or pick and rolls etc etc so it comes down to a smaller guy trying to score on/defend a much bigger one with equal (more or less) skills.

The matchup I’d have loved to see in their primes would have been Shaq vs Jordan. Shaq is of course WAY bigger but to the point of also being much slower and with no jump shot. Who wins that game, I’m not sure. But LeBron beats Kobe 7 times out of 10.

53 Jeremy Wickman November 23, 2011 at 10:40 am

Google TV = lots of potential, but ultimately sucks because you currently can’t get lots of content (like Hulu)

Google TV + re-imagined NBA = a high-value offering whose content is essential for a significant chunk of the population (basketball die-hards)

That’s exactly how you become a relevant broadcast device.

54 Agohtos1 November 23, 2011 at 10:53 am

I actually really like it. However, that is probably what we wil end up with on a some level. After the players miss a few more paychecks and agents lose money from not signing thier valuable free agents. They will take a smaller deal they were offered and we will play a 30 game season plus playoffs.

How about a professional double elimination tournament with a very large prize (say $150MM) going to the winning team, paying out maybe the top 5 places, open to everyone, with say 24 NBA Player teams recieving byes to the round of 32. You could have a national build up with local participation. You would get some great storylines around the heartwarming almost players taking thier last shot. You could produce months of shows similar to American idol as we follow scrappy wanna-bes through the rounds. You could even provide the round of 128 professional coaches and trainers to help add to the drama. Think american idol for basketball where you get to actually compete against professionals, train with professionals, and at the end for lotto style sum. Seems like high drama to me.

55 Yancey Ward November 23, 2011 at 11:14 am

What is this NBA thing you guys are talking about?

56 byomtov November 23, 2011 at 11:44 am

What if Comcast (or cash-rich Google?) said to a bunch of top stars something like the following?:…

My guess is that Comcast or Google would end up losing a lot of money.

57 Crenellations November 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I wonder how the NBA would feel, considering it and Comcast are business partners. The NBA League Pass might become DirecTV exclusive, like the NFL one.

58 Thomas November 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I’m not sure why the players haven’t tried to do this on their own. The idea that there’s a significant amount of financial capital required to start a league doesn’t seem well-founded to me. The revenue comes from TV, not primarily from the fans in the stands, so a new league doesn’t need any particular set of arenas. There are three within a mile of where I’m sitting that would work (12,000 to 20,000 seats, plenty of availability), and I’m guessing other cities have similar facilities. There’s not a significant box office operation that’s needed. Ticketmaster has built a nice operation. There’s a need for marketing, but it’s not as if the product is arena football or indoor lacrosse. It’s basketball played by the most skilled and most famous players on earth. The NBAZ has invested the capital to make them famous, but now that they are, they can use their fame. TV networks might be reluctant to bid for the rights, out of a fear that the league won’t work long-term and that the NBA would resume. But there are ways to address that concern contractually (including non-competes from the top 50 players). Now, the league would look and function much differently. The big stars in the league right now would get more money, and the average player would get much less. But over time the average players would re-assert control through the draft and democratic governance processes. In the short run, facilities wouldn’t be as nice, and travel budgets would be much lower, but, again, over time that would revert to something closer to the current arrangement. And in the end, the players would democratically control the full value of the revenue stream. Which wouldn’t be much better than where they are today, but at least we’d avoid the strike threat.

59 Ryan November 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I want to see friendlies between the teams that will be playing in the summer Olympics. This at least partly solves the “players won’t try” problem if they are playing for national pride and the resulting story lines potentially make the coming Olympics a viable alternative to the playoffs. The opportunity cost of practicing a few times a week with Team USA and playing monthly friendlies is at the lowest level I can expect in my lifetime — let’s take advantage of it.

60 JCG November 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Yes, yes, and yes. Amazing idea. I would watch. Especially if these were organized as street ball games, played in inner city courts where fouls are called infrequently. Does any basketball fan not love watching street ball? And I mean real, aggressive street ball, not trick-show-“And 1”-nobody-plays-defense street ball.

61 Ben November 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm

If you have ever played pickup basketball, or casually played any sport, you know exactly why these guys would play hard. They would want to win because they don’t like losing at anything. Have you seen the crowds that show up when a LeBron or Durant stops by an outdoor court and plays around? Huge crowds.

This would work because no one likes to lose, especially not pro athletes.

62 juan November 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm

My understanding is that a big driver of this is the increasing unwillingness of Americans to pay or attend live events. Simmons has referenced this. Apparently the leagues have all been polling their fans. At the younger the fan the less willing (relative to previous generations of young fans) they are to care about live events.

The internet is introverting the population. More and more people are uncomfortable with and dislike crowds.

And this trend is likely to accelerate going forward. The belief is this is a fundamental change and not just a response to a poor economy.

63 Max W November 23, 2011 at 11:53 pm

i would argue that is has more to do with Americans today being less inclined to pay for nosebleed seats. if you arent lucky enough to get sideline tickets, why not watch at home on your 50” plasma screen tv?

64 Sisyphus November 23, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Why not a real winner-take-all tournament, with everyone but the winning team getting some minimum amount (maybe the NBA minimum or less), and the winners getting all profits beyond that? That should inspire some competition, if we take incentive economics seriously. Maybe up the value even more by making teams only 6 players, so there’s only one bench spot including for injuries and fouling out. That would create something like a hockey power play in basketball at times, which could be fun and surprising.

I like the idea of non-college players joining in somehow American Idol style, too. Although this is less of an issue in the NBA than the NFL because the NBA already allows high school players, there are probably some great players out there who just have not had an opportunity to play on organized teams.

65 Gordon Mohr November 23, 2011 at 5:37 pm

While the league would require the big bucks of a Google or Oracle behind it, it should have a power-to-the-players-and-fans marketing angle. Perhaps, the ‘PA-BA’ (Player’s Association – Basketball Association)?

Crowdsource the team names/logos – creating lots of populist collectibles. Experiment with rule innovations – perhaps each quarter’s score has a small contribution to regular-season standings?

Bill Simmons and Jay Caspian Kang went deeply into one fantasy-scenario for a ‘renegade league’ – into teams, team themes, and even a mock pay-per-view draft – back in early October:

WIth the net, pay-per-view streaming options, and all the media outlets and arenas desperate for content, it should be possible to throw some sort of runt/replacement-league together. Even if it’s just a reality show, “Pickup Hoops with the Pros”, where ad-hoc teams challenge each other for the right to stay on the court, 2-3 times a week.

66 schtevie November 23, 2011 at 7:37 pm
67 Matt Goldman November 23, 2011 at 9:16 pm

68 Borealis November 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm

It would soooo boring. But maybe some people would watch after the NFL ends, but not before.

69 Nils November 24, 2011 at 7:14 am

The biggest risk is that creating a small league like this will split the union’s collective solidarity — the players who get left off the the teams (which would be 85% of all the players if you have a 4 team league), and therefore get left out of the revenues, will have every incentive at that point to fold against the owners and just take what they can get.

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