Remember when player movement was this really cool, novel idea? Remember when free agency hit the NFL and was supposed to revolutionize professional football, sling-shotting it out of the 19th century, where it had supposedly been stuck?
NFL free agency is fun, but most fans would argue that the offseason carousel hasn’t spun as quickly and as wildly as we all expected when the Green Bay Packers made that initial splash with Reggie White in 1993.
Franchise tags and hefty signing bonuses have made it so that while the NFL is a free market, teams and players are still encouraged, financially, to stick with their teams.
That’s why Peyton Manning is synonymous with the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady with the New England Patriots and Brian Urlacher with the Chicago Bears.
Tom Brady is slated to become a free agent next year, but no one believes he's going anywhere.
In the NFL, stars rarely get a chance to jump ship and ditch their original franchises; the system simply isn’t designed to make that process an easy one. When big names do move, it’s usually only once they’ve passed their prime (see: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Tony Gonzalez).
Call me old-fashioned, but that’s the way I like it. I am intrigued by a hot trade rumour or a sexy new signing as much as the next sports fan, but I’ve also noticed that the novelty wears off quickly.
Take the NBA: Is this LeBron James-Chris Bosh-Dwyane Wade Miami Heat super team intriguing and exciting? Sure, just as the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce Boston Celtics super team was, too. But the shock value of seeing a dude like Garnett in Celtic green or LeBron in Heat colours doesn’t last forever … and then, eventually, you’re just left with a disparity problem, which is fun for nobody (expect maybe Heat or Celtics fans).
I’m not ready to say that the NBA has a player movement problem on its hands, especially considering this offseason may very well be an anomaly. But if players like Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets continue to push for trades when they see fellow stars meet up in more luxurious locations, you could very well have an issue on your hands.
That’s exactly what Ken Berger of CBSSports.com drove at in a recent column questioning whether the NBA should adopt NFL-like player movement rules.
“As part of the labor negotiations that are expected to resume next month, should the NBA look at an NFL-style system with signing bonuses in lieu of guaranteed contracts? As a way to prevent star players from fleeing their teams as unrestricted free agents, would an NFL-style franchise tag be useful in the NBA?”
And from my NFL-centric perspective, that’s the key: the franchise tag. It’s an easy solution to keep a big-name player in his original city for at least one more year (or more, depending on how things are ironed out in collective bargaining). It rewards the star in question with a contract that immediately makes him one of the five highest paid guys at his position (again, that’s the NFL’s policy) while giving the team in question one more year to get said star the supporting cast he requires/requests/prays for at night.
Only problem: the players hate it.
Obviously, right? I mean, these guys want their money and they want their money now, but they also risk limbs every day they take the field/court/ice and they want long-term security as quickly as possible, which is understandable. As Berger states it, “a series of one-year deals” is not enticing.
And that’s why franchise tags and non-guaranteed contracts (both of which exist in the NFL and not in the NBA) are crucial poker chips in CBA negotiation process.
LeBron James jumped ship and took less money to team up with other stars in Miami.
Berger adds that “if the NFL’s system is so good, the NBA union would argue, why are so many people looking to change it?” And he’s got a point. The NFL’s CBA expires after the 2010 season and it’s completely possible that the franchise tag — again, dreaded by players and agents — ends up in the garbage bin behind the NFL offices at 280 Park Ave. in Manhattan.
And then there’s the idea that player movement isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it does spark interest from fans at what would otherwise be down times.
“Look how much interest there was in the NBA this year with all the player movement,” NFL and NBA agent Mark Bartelstein told Berger. “Look at how much interest there has been in the NFL in the last month with all the player movement and with no salary cap. People like player movement. It drives ticket sales. There’s no question the NBA had the biggest increase in ticket sales it’s probably had in a long, long time.”
But, amazingly, what sells tickets and jerseys (trades and free agency have undoubtedly boosted the jersey market), isn’t always what’s best for the game. And as someone who spends time with sports fans seven days a week at my job and in my personal life, I don’t think I’m off base in saying that the NBA has turned a significant number of fans against it in the last three weeks.
So what if the NBA had a franchise tag in place right now? One that, as Berger proposes, allowed teams to discount the salary of its franchise player from its annual payroll?
James would likely still be a Cavalier and Bosh would likely still be a Raptor. The league would have more parity and — with the extra money made available by the payroll exemption — those teams would have a chance to spend money on complementary players to keep their stars in town long-term.
And what if the NBA had non-guaranteed contracts that hinged more heavily on signing bonuses and less on year-by-year commitments?
Chris Paul never would have had a chance to weasel his way out of New Orleans, as he very nearly did. He’d have had to play out his contract, because the Hornets wouldn’t have been able to cut bait and pay out his bonus all at once.
The beautiful thing about the NFL, especially this time of year, is the sense of optimism that flows in every city (except Cleveland). Never mind any given Sunday — in the NFL, it’s any given year. No North American sports league has as much balance. And with balance comes hope for every team (except Cleveland), which puts more fans in the seats than almost any trade or signing can.
How many NBA teams will realistically head into training camp in nine weeks thinking they can win an NBA championship? Based on what happened in July, that number probably won’t be very high.
The franchise tag and related restrictions on player movement might feel unfair, borderline anti-democratic. But sports are about the fans first, the people who pay big bucks so that the players and owners can make the big bucks. And while fans might be temporarily dazzled by glitzy trades and tantalizing signings, they ultimately want good games, which come from good competition.
And that’s something you can’t have when one or two super teams hijack a league.