Let’s celebrate freedom
It’s the Fourth of July, a time we reserve to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans and the independence won for these United States. It also happens to mark the beginning of this year’s NBA free agency, which has been nothing short of jaw-dropping, with fringe players who even the most seasoned NBA fan wouldn’t be able to name, signing contracts for guaranteed money that rival that of even the most elite NFL player. But why?
TV money is awesome
Once upon a time, NBA players accepted whatever their team offered them in compensation because the players lacked the freedom to contract with any other team. The team that chose them held all of the bargaining power. That was pre-free agency, in the Stone Age of player rights.
Fast-forward to 2015, where teams and players who will be become unrestricted free agents next year (see Curt Flood) expect a big increase in salary due to the NBA’s nine-year, $24 billion television rights deal that will kick in at the beginning of the season.
This year’s salary cap will see an increase of $4-6 million to around $69 million and some project the cap to be as high as $90 million in the 2016-17 season. For perspective, the largest annual salary-cap jump in history is $7 million.
Which brings us to the question, why have a salary cap at all? Is this not the land of the free market?
Let freedom ring
Forbes released its annual list of the world’s highest-paid athletes. LeBron James came in the 6 spot with $64.8 million ($20.8 million salary/ $44 million endorsement). Cristiano Ronaldo ($79.6 million) was ahead of James on that list, mostly due to the fact that the soccer icon made about $52 million in salary. Many argue that if the NBA did away with salary caps, James’ value would skyrocket past that $52 million salary mark, possibly commanding hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
A funny thing happened when the NBA sought a new television deal for the league. They tested the free market, large corporations like ESPN (with deep pockets, I wish I knew their tailor) started throwing all the money they had at them, and they accepted the highest offer. An uncapped, unregulated, free market negotiation. It is unconscionable to think that this very entity that enjoyed the spoils of the free market would then squash their player’s ability to do the same.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t see this in corporate America. The tech industry. Medicine. Law. In this country you should make what you are worth. And you are worth what someone is willing to pay you.
But then again…
In America, we are all about the little man being able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. The Knicks, Bulls and Lakers (coincidentally located in the 3 largest cities), are the only teams in the NBA valued at over $1 billion dollars. Even the team historically known as L.A.’s J.V. squad, the Clippers, recently sold for $2 billion! That said, the Lakers haven’t won a conference final in five years, the Bulls in 17 years and the Knicks in 16 years.
In that time, we have seen NBA titles won by the San Antonio Spurs, conference and NBA finals appearances by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Why? Some might say the salary cap.
On a level playing field, where money spent on players is held in check by salary caps, players can make the same money in Oklahoma or Indiana as they could in New York or California. In this 2015 free agency period, we have seen a number of players choose small markets and leave the big cities out in the cold. If the money is the same everywhere, it frees the player up to decide where to play based on factors other than who can pay them the most.
So maybe we should sacrifice the freedom of the athlete to command their true value for the sake of parody in the NBA. For the sake of the little guy in the small market being able to watch a Kevin Durant or LeBron James in a fly-over state night after night.
Or maybe this is America. Where athletes should be free to make as much money as their talents command and small markets should be brave enough to find new ways to compete in a world with no salary caps.