January 25, 2012
David Stern has been the center of controversy plenty of times in his long tenure as NBA commissioner, but pretty much everyone agrees that his moves to bring NBA players into the Olympics rank among his best decisions. The 1992 Dream Team that dominated the competition in Barcelona served as terrific ambassadors for the sport, bringing new attention to the league's stars and inspiring a new generation of foreign players to get interested in playing basketball. Those developments have caused massive international growth and increased revenues, creating a stronger NBA. Stern played the long game and benefited from it.
The Dream Team was 20 years ago, though, and it's unclear how much the NBA now has to gain from having its players participate in the Olympics without the league making any money off the endeavor. One particularly outspoken owner -- Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, duh -- even called it "the epitome of stupidity," especially when guys get hurt in international competition. From Jeff Caplan of ESPNDallas.com (via PBT):
Cuban has argued that NBA owners should not be saddled with the full risk of their players suiting up for their countries in the offseason, and he said other owners agree with him but aren't as vocal in their opposition.
"It's just the epitome of stupidity that we would allow ourselves to be used so other corporations" -- as Cuban calls the Olympics -- "can make tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars," Cuban said. "There's some guys sitting at the Olympic headquarters going, 'Those dumb-asses, we're taking all their best guys for nothing.' "
Cuban knows he's unlikely to bring change to the system, but he said he will continue "fighting so that we'll pull out."
Cuban has repeatedly voiced his displeasure to NBA commissioner David Stern, but his complaints have fallen on deaf ears. He said he tried to make it a topic of discussion during the collective bargaining agreement negotiations over the summer, but that attempt also failed.
"The commissioner's office won't open it up to discussion. They just make a unilateral call," Cuban said Monday. "They'll take calls about it, but won't put it up for a vote. Hopefully, I can get him to move it to a vote at some point."
It's hard to argue against the ideas that NBA owners carry a large amount of financial risk during the Olympics, particularly when the International Olympic Committee and the corporations that sponsor the games make so much money off the involvement of these international superstars. It's a tough prospect when stars like Manu Ginobili and Yao Ming have broken down under the weight of international competition. Plus, it's easy to see how the NBA could profit off organizing its own international tournament, one modeled on MLB's World Baseball Classic but altogether more serious. Any competition that puts Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant on the same team is going to be a cash cow. The only question for the NBA is whether or not it wants to reap as much from that structure as it possibly can.
Yet Cuban also overlooks an important point here, one related to the same factors that made the Dream Team such a successful enterprise. While Cuban is correct that the Olympics function as a corporation in all practical terms, the perception is that they represent a purer form of sport, one in which amazing physical specimens compete for little or no money simply because they care about their home countries and the thrill of competition itself. The perception of the NBA, whether it's accurate or not, is very different: Much of the public thinks that players are most interested in themselves and the money they stand to make while exerting as little effort as possible. The Olympics serve to humanize them, and by extension the league. As what happened with the Dream Team proves, that slight shift in perception can reap benefits over time, even if there are no immediate positive financial effects.
This is all to say that Cuban's numbers can simultaneously be technically correct and conceptually faulty. Pulling NBA players out of the Olympics and gaining profits from an alternative tournament might be good for the checkbooks of Cuban and his fellow owners at first, but those decisions could also limit the league's growth over time. Perhaps it's time for a debate on the issue, as Cuban wants. We should just remember that the pursuit of profit in the short term isn't always best in the long run.