Disaster begets opportunity, if you play it right. Franklin D. Roosevelt did, when he took office five years into the worst economic depression in modern history. He took unemployment down from 25% to 15%, rebuilt America's infrastructure, created Social Security and brought self-esteem back to the American worker. Adam Silver needs to channel his inner FDR, because according to the NBA's most trusted insider, the league's in for a gruesome economic future.
On a recent podcast with ESPN's Zach Lowe, Adrian Wojnarowski didn't hold back.
"The future of this league is at stake. How this league is going to look, not just this year, or next year, but for years to come. There are still potentially very dark scenarios for a lot of franchises financially, and for the competitive balance of this league. For small-market teams who have no idea how they - without fans next year or without revenue sharing - are gonna put any kind of competitive team on the floor, or pay their employees."
That group of concerned small-market franchises could very well include the Suns, who were entailed in a financial report showing that 14 NBA teams lost money on basketball operations in 2016-17.
This is Adam Silver's first true test as commissioner of the NBA. Donald Sterling was obvious - any commissioner would've kicked an owner out after their racist comments went public on TMZ. Silver's comments about the mental health of players pleased the moral-high-ground-media, but did little for the overall health of the sport. His progressive nature seems helpful, but hasn't materialized in many meaningful ways.
Now, there are a confluence of issues that will test Silver's mettle. China is holding the NBA hostage over Daryl Morey's comments, which I've been told has already cost the league $400 million, and could cost billions more going forward. The league may not have fans in stands - which accounts for 40% of NBA revenues - until 2022. Adam Silver has positioned the NBA as morally superior, making it tough to go hardcore capitalist in this moment.
It's time to go full FDR. The NBA needs its own New Deal to replenish its infrastructure, while embracing reform in a time of disparity.
The league should focus on three core issues: Ownership, branding and China
Ownership – Holding ownership accountable is good for the health of any league, and should be embraced more heavily by every major American sport. Because the NBA already struggles with competitive balance - the richest owners are most able to take advantage of the NBA's soft cap - vetting ownership is an absolute must for the league going forward. I propose an in-house auditing board - made up of former NBA executives - which has the power to audit each of the 30 NBA franchises based on spending, management and culture. Perhaps a letter grade can be given, and punitive measures can be taken for prolonged franchise negligence - say 10 years of no playoff appearances or below "C" letter grades, etc. Bad, cheap ownership leads to instability from the top down, losing key players, and competitive disparities. Perhaps if franchises receive poor marks, the auditing board can provide best practice recommendations.
Branding – Right now the NBA is marketed to the bourgeoisie population of the US. It looks, feels, acts like the intellectual elite. Think about the brands that attach themselves to the NBA. Silicon Valley, The Ringer, Nate Silver. There is a space for that, but it is not the mainstream. The NFL is Cold Beers and Cheeseburgers - it smacks you in the face with Americana and obviousness. That’s what Americans like, which explains why I see a new Cold Beers and Cheeseburgers every other day on Phoenix street corners. The NBA feels like a hipster coffee joint where influencers go to edit their Vlogs - it needs more apple pie, less salted caramel soy lattes. It'll achieve this by taking hardline approaches to player movement and load management, catering less to the sensibilities of the media class, and more to the wants of the working class. And, by getting out of China.
China – The story will be told, over the next decade, about how American elites sold the working and middle class of their own country out to China, effectively empowering an adversarial, authoritarian regime along the way. China is very likely to surpass the US in GDP, and possibly global influence over the next decade if nothing is done. This was made possible by short-term thinking, a lack of patriotism and greed, and it turns out NBA owners are a very symbolic part of that. They have spent the last 30 years working rigorously to tap into China's emerging middle class, as they've watched ours dwindle away. Now, China is holding the NBA hostage over Daryl Morey’s support of Hong Kong, and the NBA is doing everything it can to acquiesce. They named Michael Ma as Chief China Executive - the first Chinese national to be earn such a rank - and switched their ball from American-owned Spalding to Chinese-owned Wilson earlier this month. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has lost its autonomy about 27 years before it was scheduled to, in part because the Chinese Communist Party successfully muted dissent through economic coercion. This is not a relationship the NBA will want to be dependent on as geopolitical tensions heat up over the next decade.
I hope that Silver can turn this around. He seems like a genuinely good guy, who has earned media admiration for being likable, rather than effective. Many politicians have fallen into that trap. FDR, a born politician, didn't. Silver doesn't have to either.