For the better part of the last four years, I have read that Sonny Vaccaro or David Stern or Myles Brand or someone else is going to save youth basketball in the United States. Brand and Stern created iHoops, which is essentially a Facebook-like site for basketball, but has no real impact on changing the culture of grassroots basketball or enhancing player development.
Basketball is an entrepreneurial business in the Unites States, and the majority of money remains at the top – very little money from NBA and NCAA television contracts and sponsorships ever trickles down to youth basketball. From that perspective, NCAA athletic departments and NBA owners benefit by eliminating research and development costs; they get their product for free.
If iHoops or USA Basketball is intent on changing the youth culture, creating a trickle down effect from the professional ranks to the grassroots level is the best answer. Otherwise, youth teams rely heavily on the shoe companies and participation fees.
Because nobody has created a bold answer to create change, I have outlined one proposal that would alter grassroots basketball culture and create a hierarchical structure that would empower USA Basketball and/or iHoops to manage and oversee these changes.
The proposal starts with funding. When an NBA team drafts an international player, the team pays a buyout to release the player from his contract. The current limit that NBA teams can spend is $500,000. For example, when Ricky Rubio joins the NBA, Minnesota will pay his club in Spain $500,000. This money can be used to sign a replacement player or to fund programs to develop the next Ricky Rubio.
What if NBA teams paid a player’s university $500,000 for the right to sign him to a contract? The $500,000 could be used to sign additional players or to fund additional stipends for scholarship athletes. Would a monetary incentive change a college coach’s approach? Would coaches spend more time developing players’ skills and preparing them for the NBA if their program stood to benefit monetarily from a player’s draft selection?
Why should NCAA programs reap all the benefits? Many top selections spend less than a year on a college campus, so coaches cannot take a lot of credit for the player’s development, skills or talent. Also, NCAA programs benefit from the same free development of its talent.
When a player signs a college scholarship, what if the university’s athletic department paid the player’s developmental programs the same value as the scholarship?
In European leagues, teams often loan a player to another club or sell the player’s contract, but retain some rights if the player’s contract is sold again to a bigger club. A small club might sell a player to a bigger club, but add a clause that they receive a portion of the fee if the bigger club sells the player’s contract to another club. In addition to developmental programs benefitting from a player signing a college scholarship, the developmental programs should benefit from the eventual professional contract and split the money that the university receives.
For an example: Joe Future Pro plays with Westwood Recreation program for two years; then he moves to the HoopMasters AAU program for two more seasons; he plays for Santa Monica High School for four years and joins the L.A. Rockfish AAU program for two years and then the Pump-and-Run AAU program for two seasons. When he signs his scholarship to UCLA (let’s say that all scholarships are valued at $80,000), these five entities share the $80,000. How? Each gets a percentage equal to the number of years in its organization. Joe Future Pro played 12 seasons; each season is worth roughly $6600. Therefore, Westwood Recreation would receive $13,200 for its two seasons, while SaMo High School would receive $26,400 for its four seasons.
Joe Future Pro stays two years at UCLA before being a 1st Round NBA Draft Pick of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers would pay $500,000 for the right to his contract; that $500,000 would be split between the youth programs and UCLA. Let’s say universities receive 15% per year; therefore, UCLA would receive 30% of the $500,000 or $150,000 while the developmental programs would split an additional $350,000.
Imagine what $100,000 would do for a large public high school such as Santa Monica? Sure, it benefits largely based on dumb luck, as school choice is limited to geography and school districts in most cases. However, the school did spend four years enhancing the player’s development as an athlete and a person.
Imagine the changes to non-profit programs with the additional revenue generated through player development. Imagine the entrepreneurs who would design better facilities and academies to develop players because of the economic incentive. Right now, an entrepreneur makes money $20-$200/hour regardless of the player’s success, provided that the parent/player feels like the coach/trainer is enhancing the player’s development and experience. Now, entrepreneurs would be rewarded for results.
With so much money in play, how would it be regulated? How would we know who deserves what payout?
IHoops or USA Basketball would have to instill its authority. I propose a registration process. Any organization who hopes to profit from a player’s development must register with the governing body. To play with a registered organization, players would have to register as well, much like with the current AAU set-up. When a player registers, he would register with a club or organization. That registration would tie him to the club for that season (we’ll use September 1 – July 31 as a “season”). If a player plays for a club and a school team, he can register with his high school and a club program.
Using algorithms and computer programs, the governing body would be able to monitor programs, players, and coaches. When a player wanted to change clubs within a season, he would have to apply for a transfer – this process would help to prevent clubs from pilfering talented players from other clubs. Transfers would be allowed only if players moved to a different area or if there was some sort of abusive situation. Transfers would be noted by the computer programs, and a secondary issue with the same coach or club would trigger an investigation to ensure that the program met the governing body’s standards. If the investigation found something, the governing body could suspend the club or the specific coach – the coach would not be allowed to move to a different area and register, because of the national registry. I know coaches accused of various things in one area who move to a new area and start coaching like nothing happened; a national registry would help to prevent these situations.
Is this more interference than we need from USA Basketball or the NBA? Maybe. However, most who have read Play Their Hearts Out might think otherwise. This would create three primary changes:
- Regulate coaches and organizations to create safer environments for young athletes.
- Finance better developmental programs in non-profits, schools and through entrepreneurial endeavors.
- Empower a governing body to register coaches, players and clubs and create real philosophical changes with the authority to enforce the changes due to the potential financial compensation at stake.
The concept is not perfect, and may not even be practical. However, compared to the other proposals identified publicly, my proposal offers the possibility for real change through realistic measures due to the financial possibilities when money filters down from the professional ranks to amateur and grassroots’ levels.
Keys to the proposal:
- NBA and NCAA franchises share revenue with developmental programs who produce the talent.
- Governing body registers, tracks and manages players, coaches and programs.
What changes might we expect?
The obvious negative is that financial rewards may increase recruiting efforts by high schools and high school-age club programs. However, that already occurs. There may be ways to negate some of the recruiting through greater oversight and threat of suspension that would rob the organization of its potential financial rewards due to the player and program registration.
The greatest positive would be a reward for those youth programs who develop players and teach the basics. Such a proposal could encourage more development-oriented programs rather than the emphasis on exposure-oriented events. More emphasis on development would benefit future professionals who would possess more developed skills, but also those who do not make it, but would benefit from reduced prices for quality programs as well as a more positive experience.
Because the financial incentive is so great, and important to the entire system change, the governing body would have to create some rules to ensure that the financial incentives create the desired results. One rule would be to pay the money to the development programs over a series of years, as opposed to one lump payment, to ensure that the program continues.
One problem with the current set up is that there are many programs that come and go. If a father saw that his son had NBA potential, he could start his own team to showcase his son, and reap the financial benefits when his son signed a scholarship and was drafted to the NBA. At that point, he could collect his payday and stop his team/program.
The financial incentives should be used to create sustainable programs. A program with teams from 10-18 years old has a chance to invest in long term athlete development, while those who simply form a team for one group of 5-10 players generally exist for showcasing players or winning – the Peak by Friday mentality.
By spreading out payments over a series of years, and requiring the program to exist during those years, the money would be used at least partially to fund continuing programs, not just to pay a coach who no longer coaches. The goal with the financial contributions to developmental programs is to expand and improve programs while reducing costs. Spreading payments over a period of five years encourages this process of developing better programs as opposed to a quick profit scheme.
The registration process also could create limits for games and assist tournament directors. If a player registers for a club, and the club has to register with the governing body for its games, the governing body would know how many games each player plays. The governing body could set limits by age group to encourage more training, especially during the off-season.
One major problem with youth tournaments is inequitable competition. By receiving data from each tournament, the governing body could create in-house ranking to assist tournament directors with the schedules. in fact, the governing body could create a tournament scheduling program and use its algorithm to schedule games automatically. As teams played more games, the algorithm would learn more and more about teams and create better and better schedules, matching similarly talented teams against each other more often, thus reducing the number of blowouts and creating more competitive playing environments. Tournament directors would be required to feed their results into the system and this information would be available for subsequent tournaments.
The registration process would generate millions of bits of data about players, programs, coaches, schools, player transfers, game results, games played, schedules, etc. All that information can be used to improve the system if it is analyzed, sorted and filtered correctly. There are thousands of ways to make the system more efficient, which ultimately creates better programs for players’ enjoyment and development, which should be the governing body’s ultimate purpose.