The NBA’s issue with Socialism

Socialism doesn’t tend to be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of American sports. Quite the opposite – the astronomical wages, the glitz and glamour both on and off the court, the lights, the sounds – all combine to give off a distinctly capitalist tone to the American sports industry, none more so than the National Basketball Association (NBA). Cast aside this flamboyant guise with which the NBA attempts to conceal its true form, and you will find that, in truth, the NBA espouses ideals very socialist in nature. Whether or not the league’s socialist format is a good thing has yet to be determined…

Monopolistic league:
Since the latter half of the 20th century professional sports leagues in the United States have essentially become cartels. The NBA is the stand alone professional basketball league in the states, with no promotion and relegation to and from it. In the 1970s a rival league to the NBA emerged, namely the American Basketball Association (ABA). Unable to compete financially,  the ABA soon surrendered to the crippling might of the NBA. By 1976, the two leagues had merged, the NBA adding four new teams from the ABA into its own ranks while the remaining ABA teams quickly evaporated into extinction. From thereon, the NBA continued to grow, swiftly becoming the behemoth that it is today. Barriers to entry have become so high as to render it effectively impossible for any new professional basketball leagues of any significance to emerge.

For reasons which will be explained, the NBA enjoys a level of parity and competitiveness unseen by that of European football leagues, such as the Premier League or La Liga. While in recent years the NBA has admittedly witnessed the unrelenting power of the Golden State Warriors take hold, a team brimming with all-star talent, having won the championship in three of the last four seasons, the talent spread of the NBA is more equitable than most other sports leagues. Since the inaugural Premier League season in 1992, only six of the 49 teams to have competed in England’s top flight have gone on to become champions (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, and Leicester City), four of which have won a combined total of 25 Premier League titles out of the 27 within that time frame. This means approximately 12% of teams who have competed in the Premier League since its inception have become eventual champions, a paltry amount with all things considered.

In the NBA it’s a different story. Within the same time frame, there have been 11 different winning teams. Not only is this more than in the Prem, only 30 teams compete in the NBA, meaning that over a third (37%) of NBA teams have won a championship since 1992. The 1970s, in particular, saw eight different NBA champions with no back-to-back winners. Clearly, in the Premier League, money talks. The clubs able to pay the highest wages and fork out the most money on signing players have a much higher chance of being successful. Freedom for the pike means death for the minnows. 

List the top 20 best players in the Premier League and nearly all will feature in one of the ‘top 6’ clubs. The cream of the crop in the NBA are much more evenly distributed among teams. Granted, in the NBA, a team only needs a minimum of one truly world class calibre player in order to compete so it may be a slightly unfair comparison to make. Even so, in the 2018/19 season, 25 teams in the NBA had at least one player averaging a minimum of 20.0 points per game (PPG), with only 5 teams possessing more than one. In that same season 16 teams of the 30 tallied at least 40 wins out of a possible 82, while only five teams recorded fewer than 30 wins. 

Seemingly this high level of competitiveness has proven beneficial both for the league’s repute and ledger. The league’s revenue has risen from $2.66 billion to $8.01 billion between 2001 and 2018, per Forbes while average TV viewership of the Finals was 9.29 in 2007 compared to 17.7 in in 2018, per Sports Media Watch. Basketball is clearly a sport in demand, and it may have its parity to thank for its recent financial success. 

Salary Caps:
Whereas in the Premier League money is the most important driver of success, in the NBA, salary caps ensure no one team can outspend its rivals. Defined by NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the league enforces a salary cap, currently set at $109.14 million, to prevent top teams from hoarding all the best players. Teams are also required to spend at least 90 per cent of said salary cap each year, equating to $98.226 million. Although this salary cap is ‘soft’ in that teams are able to exceed the cap, they are in turn subject to a luxury tax, the money from which is then distributed to underperforming teams. The world of salary caps is one of complexity and intricacy, and for the sake of the reader shan’t be explored any further in this article. Suffice it to say, however, that the NBA’s salary caps go at least some way in ensuring the league remains somewhat competitive. To add icing on the cake, the league evenly distributes their annual television revenue amongst its 30 teams regardless of viewing disparities, rendering the link between a team’s aptitude and the money it takes in fairly tenuous. This is where things start to go sour.

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Drafting and Tanking:
NBA teams, and all American sports teams for that matter, don’t have youth squads, instead procuring their players from colleges via a draft system. This draft system acts as a highly effective means of socialist redistribution. It works as follows: the first fourteen draft picks up for grabs are awarded to the 14 worst performing teams of the season prior (i.e. teams who didn’t make the playoffs). The order in which the 14 worst teams select draft picks is in part determined by their regular season performance, for example, the team with the worst record will have the highest chance of landing the first pick, and by a lottery, in which there a number numerical combinations allocated to the 14 teams. The very worst teams are granted a larger number of combinations, thereby increasing the likelihood of them being awarded the higher draft picks. The team with the winning lottery combination will receive the first pick, and so on and so forth.

This is where the NBA’s biggest flaw lies, because it ultimately rewards failure and indeed encourages it. By ensuring that bad teams have a fairly good chance of reversing their fortunes by being awarded the number 1 draft pick, the phenomenon of ‘tanking’ has emerged, whereby underperforming teams essentially lose on purpose to increase their prospects of receiving better draft odds. Tanking tends to consist of teams intentionally putting in less effort or fielding their weakest side. Some teams go as far as trading their best players midway through the season if they don’t think they’re going to make the playoffs. In 2006 the Portland Trailblazers, intent on rebuilding their once star-studded roster, won just three games in the final two months of the season in a bid to secure a top pick. While it is no guarantee that landing the number one draft pick will be conducive to success, The San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan as the first pick in the 1997 draft and went on to win five titles in the following 15 years, a testament to the power of the draft. In the NBA, it would seem, there is little cost to performing badly. Tanking is a real issue in the NBA. By incentivising teams to play poorly, it puts the game into disrepute, while ripping off fans who pay good money to watch games. It threatens both quality and integrity and inhibits the competitive spirit of sport. 

Playoff Paradox:
No one has any real gripes with the NBA playoffs, by far the most enthralling element of professional basketball. But if one is to compare the NBA with socialism, the fact that a team with the 16th best record in the regular season can still technically become champions cannot go unrecognised. A total of five teams have managed to win the NBA finals with sub-50 regular season wins (out of 82), the most recent being the 1995 Houston Rockets, who miraculously won it all whilst only tallying 47 wins during the regular season, giving them the 10th best overall record that season. If that isn’t outrageous enough, since 1994 there have been five instances where the number 1 seed has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by an eighth seeded team. Because of the playoff system, mediocrity is rewarded with the chance to start over and potentially win a championship. Sounds a little counter intuitive, don’t you think?

My love affair with basketball is as firm as ever. The last second daggers, the array of beautiful jerseys, the drama, all leave me with an impregnable ardour for the sport. The parallels to socialism are as surprising to me as i’m sure they are to the humble reader! Basketball has come along way in the hundred or so years since its birth, but breaking down the structure of the NBA reveals that more work is needed before a truly optimal league structure is in place. 

Written by Joe Tomsett

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