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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Who Says There is a Problem? The NBA play-offs on Saturday (1.3 rating) were definitively trumped in the ratings by the NFL Draft (3.8 rating). As a reminder, the NFL has an age-limit on its draft, and the NBA does not. And just so you don't think the NFL is alone in whipping the NBA, three regular season baseball games all received a national rating of 1.3 or higher, including the always popular Giants-Padres match-up. The NCAA play-in game between UNC-Asheville and Texas Southern got a 1.0.

My point is this. A number of people have made compelling economic and legal arguments against an age-limit (freedom of contract, private rights of choice), but the fact is that the NBA has suffered, both in the quality of play and the television ratings. The NBA Finals ratings have dropped significantly since 1998, achieving an all-time low of 6.5 last summer. In comparison, the low World Series rating in history is a 12. People just don't want to watch the ugly basketball being played.

You may not agree with me that the play is ugly, but the numbers indicate a strong negative trend. If the NBA wants to do something about this (say, put an age-limit into the CBA) and this is a legal labor exemption to anti-trust law, as the Second Circuit claims, then I see no problem. The NBA is a business and it produces a product. It has a right to pass rules that will protect this product, and ultimately, allow the league to remain a profitable business. General managers are not concerned about the "product" of the NBA - they are concerned first about keeping their jobs and second about winning. Passing on a high schooler that turns out to be a superstar in three years helps neither. Thus, the argument that "a player won't be drafted if he is not ready" does not really work.

But this may not be good for the league as a whole, which is where the union comes in. A number of unions in other industries have age-limits, either to protect their older workers or ensure that the work product of union members remains consistent and dependable. If the NFL or the NBA union agrees to adopt a similar limitation, even if at the league's request, then there is really no difference.

Yes, there are exceptions (see Lebron and Carmelo). Yes, it's paternalistic. Yes, it goes against many ideas of a free market. But yes, it might just be necessary to protect the NBA.

Thanks to the Sports Business Daily for the numbers.


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