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Tuesday, July 26, 2005
 
If Lebron is Good for Business, Why Adopt an Age Limit?

Following the new collective bargaining agreements in the NBA and NHL, as well as last month's NBA draft, a great deal has been written on the wisdom and legality of age limits in professional sports. Mike (as always) has convincingly argued that age limits are both illogical and in violation of antitrust law. As he points out (7/20, 6/28), there seems to be no correlation between player "experience" (as measured by college attendance and age) and success in the league or trouble with the law. Moreover, statistically, younger players show that they can hold their own, if not excel, in the professional league.

But that is not the end of the story. The NBA's primary concern is not the players. Its first priority is the well-being of the league. David Stern and the other officials at the NBA must work to protect the league's image. The NBA must produce a product that will attract fans on a consistent basis. There is obviously a great deal of debate over how best to achieve this. The argument I hear most often against the age limit is Lebron James. An age limit would have kept him out an extra year and he was good for the NBA. Agreed, if James and the Cavaliers had been in the Finals this year, ratings would have far exceeded the embarrassing 8.2 generated by the Pistons and Spurs. But this does not necessarily mean that 18 year-olds are good for the sport. If they were, then why would the league and the owners (all shrewd business executives), push so hard for an age limit?

The NBA may think its product would be better without 18 year-olds for any number of reasons. For instance, perhaps fans do not like the idea of kids coming out of high school and immediately making millions of dollars. After all, almost everyone in this country either starts work at a low wage, or goes to college (and grad school) before entering the work force. Whether in the form of outright jealousy, or a subconscious displeasure, maybe fans would like to see athletes "earn" their right to make millions. In this sense, the NBA is uniquely positioned among the main leagues. Baseball players may be signed to large contracts out of high school, but in almost every case, fans will not see them for several years, after they have paid their dues in the minor leagues. NFL players must go to college and NHL players, while not faced with an age limit, (1) make far less money and (2) do not have the same high profiles as NBA high-schoolers. After all, have you ever watched an NHL draft?

The counter-argument comes in the form of individual sports, such as golf and tennis. In those sports, a number of teenagers have turned pro and some have made millions of dollars before they even turned 18. Why aren't fans up in arms about these baby millionaires? I have never seen any research data on this phenomenon, but I do have some theories. One thing I do NOT believe is that race is the factor. If it was, then why aren't people up in arms about the Venus and Serena Williams (pro at 14) and Freddy Adu (pro at 15)? Race alone cannot be the answer.

One possibility is that tennis and golf, the "country club" sports, are seen as more respectable than basketball. Fans may be more willing to tolerate younger players in these "dignified" sports that have well-established rules of etiquette (i.e., quiet for the serve and self-penalization in golf). Tuning into SportsCenter, a fan's view of basketball is dunks, show-boating and tattoos.

Along the same vein, no one has ever done a breakdown of the ages of golfers and tennis players that have been arrested. For the most part, the mug shots of golfers and tennis players do not regularly appear on the nightly news. The better overall image of these sports may cause fans to be more accepting of younger players -- after all, there is far less chance that they will be "corrupted."

If money and the negative image of the sport are not the answer, then perhaps it is basketball-related. Despite basketball's incredible popularity (witness March Madness), the NBA's television ratings suffer in comparison to baseball and often, college basketball. Even though played in the summer, when children are out of school, the NBA Finals has attracted more viewers than the World Series only once, in 1998 (Michael Jordan's final title). In the years since, the NBA's ratings have consistently suffered in comparison to other sports. There are numerous potential reasons for this decline, including a decline in basketball "fundamentals." In the place of mid-range jumpers and team offense are slam dunks and one-on-one dribble moves. Many argue that this makes the game more exciting, but when more people watch "Dancing with the Stars" than your championship series (as happened this year), it is cause for alarm. It is by no means certain that this can all be traced back to the biggest basketball stars skipping valuable college training, but the suggestion does not boggle the mind.

These theories may all be wrong. Certainly, the NBA likes having a "free" development league (the NCAA). Moreover, the NBA owners needs the age limit to offer protection from themselves (and drafting on potential, not achievement), just as the salary cap protects them from excessive spending. Ultimately, though, it does not matter why the NBA and the players decided on an age limit. Opponents can argue that the age limit will not have a positive impact on the league's image, or that it will even have a negative impact, but legally, the specific rationales are not relevant. Because the limit was collectively bargained for in a fair labor negotiation, it does not violate the law. Even if the NBA is a unique market (which is by no means certain), the age limit falls under the labor exception to the antitrust laws. As the 2nd Circuit correctly held in Clarett, this pre-empts any possible antitrust violation. Barring a fundamental change in labor law, the debate over age limits will largely be one of sports business, and less one of sports law. And at least for now, Stern and company feel that business will be better without the next Lebron.





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