By Paul Madison
Let’s get this out of the way right now:
I don’t watch the NBA regular season, or even really the first round of the playoffs.
Among the many reasons I don’t find it very interesting, is because the league is so top heavy. The good teams are head and shoulders above the rest, and the bottom 10 teams are tanking simply to have the opportunity through the lottery to grab the #1 draft spot. It’s a terrible sight, half the league trying to play well to get into the playoffs, and half trying to play so badly they can get the worst record. This typically doesn’t happen in other sports, and even when it does, in a much smaller number. Football players, from what I have seen, don’t give up and organizations don’t give up. Even the eventual 0-16 Detroit Lions fought like mad to win a game. The Colts, who ended up getting the #1 pick and Andrew Luck, almost played their way out of that spot because their organization and players were too proud to give up. In baseball, while bad teams exist on a year-to-year basis, they rarely try to tank on purpose. The MLB draft, while there to redistribute the talent, doesn’t work the same as other leagues because of the length of time it sometimes takes for top players to rise the minor league ranks to the MLB. Rarely does a player go from college, to MLB in the span of one year.
Tanking in the NBA has been going on for decades. It seems to happen every single season for about five teams after November ends. Once mid season rolls around, half the league seems to decide they can’t win, so they might as well trade talent and lose as much as possible. This creates a large reason for half the potential audience to turn off from the sport until the playoffs, and even then, those people won’t tune in until the semi finals. So, what can the league do to stop this from happening, and recapture their audience (and $$$)? Well, if we take a look across the pond, we can see a model for the NBA to examine and emulate.
The Barclays Premier League (BPL) is the largest, and best run league in the world, only rivaled by the National Football League (NFL). The NBA can’t really look towards the NFL for solutions because the two games are completely different and can’t be run the same way. The BPL though, offers something incredibly tantalizing to the NBA. It has teams who, every single week, despite the gulf in talent and size, and placement in the league, fight tooth and nail to win. Tanking isn’t an option. There is no draft to look forward to for the losers. Only a worse fate: relegation.
Mention relegation to a lower table club in the BPL, and the hearts of their fans, players, managers, trainers and owners all stop. That is a fate worse then death to many. Being relegated to the lower league means a loss in prestige, revenue and visibility. The BPL sits at the top of a well-oiled pyramid of soccer in England. Below it, is the Football League Championship (FLC), or better known as The Championship, where teams vie to get back to the BPL. Below that, is the Football League Two, and then below that, League One. However, for this article, we will only use the BPL and the FLC.
This is something the NBA needs. The NBA needs a reason for bottom of the barrel teams to fight and scrap to stick around until the end. Well, here I am to create a basketball paradise for you poor Milwaukee Bucks fans who don’t have much of a reason to give a crap about your team after the new year. Hell, even what is supposed to be a crown jewel of the NBA, The New York Knicks, are garbage and really there is no way to get out of it quickly. So, let’s give them a way to get better. We are going to add two teams (in this model, to two larger markets like Seattle and St. Louis), let them play out one season, and then the bottom 16 teams get moved into a new, lower league where they will have to fight and scrape to get back to the Premier Basketball League. We will keep a draft for the lower league for all graduating seniors from HS and one year college players. For the top league, any kid who completes two seasons of college ball, instantly goes into the free agent pool and can sign with any team they want, in the lower or the top league. This will make the lower league still a viable option for talent to come into, while maintaining the ability for kids to not have to play in the lower league if they want to go to/stay in college a little longer. Foreign players are subject to the draft until they are aged 20, and then they can go instantly into a free agency pool, or they can be bought out of their European contracts by anyone.
An added benefit is to the college game, as players might think twice about being a one and done if they think they can go from a prestigious college to a prestigious team, and not have to suffer the languish of being drafted high by a team they don’t want to play for. College coaches might like having that as a selling point as well, and with more talent developing in college and not flailing on the bench, teams will have a better product to show, for free.
Now that we have two leagues with the ability to attract talent, let’s get rid of the salary cap in the lower league. This again will help attract players to teams in the lower league, but we will keep it in place in the premier league because we don’t want teams to simply buy all the talent in the lower league and then move straight up and have a competitive advantage because of wages offered. Since you are in the premier league already, it means you have a front office/owner who understands how to build/maintain a good team in the first place, so you don’t need it anyways. This can also be used as a tool for all teams who are in salary cap hell to go down, erase all their debt and try to rebuild. The negative though, is once you are down, your books might be clean, but you aren’t in the limelight anymore and you never know when you will get back.
Now, there is no salary cap or draft in the BPL or the FLC, because caps/drafts don’t really exist in European sports. That is a uniquely American concept because athletics started in colleges before pro leagues came into existence, and we like to try to level the playing field. However, as we have seen in the NBA, the crummy teams have no use for caps because nobody really wants to play there in the first place, so they trend towards the “hot spots” or major markets anyways after their rookie contracts expire from the draft. So, like I said before, to make the lower league a desirable place to play for someone who wants to get paid and not play college, who is trying to extend their career or for a brash new owner to stamp his name on a franchise, having no spending limit down below and a way to get the talent first seems a good idea for teams to try and get themselves back to the top. Also, young talent will have a place to play and develop without bright lights on them at all times. The negative though is the lower league has to negotiate their own tv and sponsorship deals as the top league keeps everything as of now, and the new league has to run on it’s own, just like how, even though the BPL and FLC are connected, they are run independently from one another.
Are you still with me? Now we get to the part where the fans get excited! We have two leagues of 16 teams, so how do we decide who stays and who goes? Well, we are going to shorten the season in both leagues to 60 games. We will get rid of the conferences and have every team play each other 4 times (2 home, 2 away), and only play two games a week, with a week long break after the first 30 games are played. The playoffs will work the same for the top league, with the top 8 from that league going into the playoffs, but with a best of 3 game format for the opening round of 8, best of 5 for the semi final, then best of 7 for the Final. Playoff teams share the money generated each round they are apart of, with the losers taking 25%, and the winners 75%. As for the teams who don’t go to the playoffs and finish in the bottom 3 of the top league, they are automatically relegated to the lower league, and have to forfeit all the benefits of top league from the moment their season ends.
The lower league playoff will be just as, if not more, interesting. The top teams will gain automatic promotion to the top league, as their play over the entire season has shown they are deserving of promotion. The 3rd-6th placed teams will go into a playoff for that 3rd and final promotion spot. This is where things will get very interesting. The opening round will feature the seeded teams playing a best of 3 game series, and the final will feature a best of 5 game series. The winner of that final will gain the 3rd promotion slot and will be promoted to the top league, and gain all the money from tv/sponsorship’s that come from that from day 1. The benefits from promotion begin from the moment you win and a climb the ladder.
So there, we have now created a way for all teams to be interesting all season long. Teams will have to fight to keep their place in the prestigious top league and cannot decide to tank halfway through the year when the playoffs look like they might not be a possibility. The teams in the bottom league have something to always strive for, and if they somehow miss out, have an easy to make plan for how to get better and get to the promised land next year. The draft for the lower league can offer a wider range of players who simply want to become a pro now instead of waiting, and that can be an asset to them. The added story lines of relegation and promotion battles.
Nobody can switch off. Fans have a reason to show up on a weekly basis, and cheer for their team!
Now, all we have to do is convince the NBA of the fact somebody who doesn’t watch their product, knows how to run it better than they do. Anyone want to help me become the overlord?