Looking Back At The Impact Of The NexGen League Proposal

A reader emailed along a Grantland article — a conversation between editor Bill Simmons and author Malcolm Gladwell — in the context of a look back at last winter’s proposed NexGen League. It sparked some dialogue on things I’ve been thinking about over the past month.

Here is the relevant section from the Grantland piece, as the two writers discuss the Kobe Bryant contract extension and the National Basketball Association collective bargaining agreement.

Bill Simmons:

[quote]…Speaking of big contracts, when Kobe signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, many media members (including me) made the overwhelmingly valid point that someone who had just spent the past two years repeatedly saying “I only care about getting a sixth ring” had inadvertently made it much, much, much, MUCH harder to win that sixth ring. (You know, because of the salary cap restrictions, and the inherent flaw in building 40 percent of your team payroll around an aging player coming off a devastating leg injury and playing in his 19th and 20th seasons.) Kobe lashed out at that mind-set by blaming the latest collective bargaining agreement for placing an unfair responsibility on elite players. Nowadays, any star who doesn’t sacrifice his own cap figure for more help, like Tim Duncan did in San Antonio, seems selfish.

And as Kobe said, why should HE be the one sacrificing money? Why wouldn’t his exceptionally wealthy owners do that? Even in Kobe’s waning years, the Lakers still struck an incredible deal for him. Add up his promotional value and merchandising value, his star appeal for season-ticket sales and television ratings, and the reality that the Los Angeles market responds to stars only (and he’s one of the biggest). Could you argue he’s worth $60 million a year to the Lakers? You realize that the NBA’s media-rights deals are about to go through the roof, right? It’s a hugely successful league that hinges on the night-to-night appeal of, say, 18 to 20 stars from year to year. And yet the owners shrewdly created a salary structure in which someone like the Mariners’ Robinson Cano can get more than twice as much in guaranteed money than NBA superstars.

It’s a Jedi Mind Trick, Gladwell. How did they pull this off? And give me an answer that’s not just “Billy Hunter is the most incompetent union head in the history of union heads and you’ll be able to do a phenomenal 30 for 30 doc about him someday.”[/quote]

Malcolm Gladwell:

[quote]If I’m not mistaken, we had a conversation during the lockout about how the players should have just walked away from the league for good. Kobe, LeBron, Durant and a handful of others could have picked sides, drawn up a 10-team league, rented out some college stadiums and cut a TV deal with some cable channel. Boom. They’re off. Now, I’m quite sure that what we were talking about is a good deal more complicated in practice. But at the very least the players should have threatened to go off on their own. I mean, they knew years in advance that the collective bargaining agreement was going to be back on the table. Who walks into a high-stakes negotiation with nothing in their back pocket?

NBA 2.0, incidentally, could have been a great deal more entertaining than NBA 1.0 is — not to mention a whole lot more lucrative for the players. I think we even got to the point where we figured out which billionaire ought to be approached for seed capital. Larry Ellison! Who better? The most competitive man in the world! A man willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win a regatta.[/quote]

A year ago, NexGen’s Kevin Minderhout made a push to start a league just like this among the elite club men’s teams in the United States. Forget USA Ultimate and the Triple Crown Tour, he told teams, let’s start a new league that highlights individual matchups, charges admission for spectators, puts all game video online, and puts up a velvet rope around an already highly segmented group of teams.

As we reported extensively last winter, the league did not materialize. The only real thing that came out of it was an experimental tournament — the West Coast Cup — which turned out to be a small, sparsely attended affair.

But do not underestimate the power the proposal put into the hands of the players. They really did walk into negotiations with USA Ultimate with an ace in the hole — a credible threat to walk away and start a competing league. From the talks emerged more player control over the direction of elite uiltimate than ever before, with more representation, a quasi elite players union (negotiating with the players association!), and, eventually, new bylaws that codified more direct elite athlete representation on the Board of Directors in order to comply with IOC regulations.

Minderhout’s proposal, along with the creation of the semi-professional leagues, has also pushed teams into thinking more about their branding and value. Ultiworld has received multiple requests for data on elite teams’ article traffic, video statistics, and more, as they look to find potential sponsors and partners for upcoming seasons.

The business side of ultimate has been quietly exploding. From the wrestling match for players, sponsors, and eyeballs from each of the existing leagues (USAU, MLU, & AUDL) to the increasingly competitive tournament landscape (more on this in a future column), it remains a time of great flux in the sport.

As many players jockey for the best semi-pro league contracts they can secure, will something like the NexGen league arise again as an issue for USA Ultimate?

This is not like the NBA example, of course, since USAU is a player organization and is not securing profits at the expense of elite players. But top teams now know (thanks to the NexGen tour and semi-pro leagues) that they could — in theory — heavily subsidize their expenses by having close-to-home matches and not traveling crosscountry for isolated tournaments.

Of course, the players had a chance to make the switch, but the uncertainty and potential instability of the NexGen league was too much risk for them to take on. But if money doesn’t start flowing more directly into the teams that USAU is putting on ESPN3 and using in advertising, this conflict will persist.

With the lines already drawn between the semi-pro leagues and USAU, it could come to a head sooner than you might think.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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