Summer League and Free Agency proves NBA steps faster than every other league

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26: Commissioner of the NBA Adam Silver attends the 2017 NBA Awards live on TNT on June 26, 2017 in New York, New York. 27111_003 (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26: Commissioner of the NBA Adam Silver attends the 2017 NBA Awards live on TNT on June 26, 2017 in New York, New York. 27111_003 (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT) /

The NBA’s offseason is proof that it’s still a couple steps ahead of the NFL and MLB

There’s a saying; the NBA does it first, the NFL gets it right, the MLB is always behind. It means the National Basketball Association is progressive, pushing standards and practices of professional sports leagues.

The trend is never more prevalent than during the days following the draft. When conventional wisdom contends the NBA should unwind and take the summer off, the league gulps a Red Bull and blasts into full gear with summer league and free agency. Neither warrants significant hullabaloo. But each has turned into a media spectacle, prolonging the NBA’s grasp of the public eye an extra month.

As the league’s annual migration to Sin City closes in the coming days, we are reminded about the scene that is summer league basketball. The fact that his tournament has turned into such a draw, attracting thousands of fans and primetime coverage on the nation’s top sports network is nonsensical.

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In the heart of summer, we fixate on third stringers, players that are likely to find themselves in the D-League next year when we used to drool over homerun chases and no hitters.

If anyone is worth watching, it’s the elite rookies. But even the Lonzo Balls and Josh Jacksons are ripe, often sloppy and difficult to stomach. And after flashes of brilliance, they’re pulled for the tournament.

Yet, the nuance of the tournament remains. The NBA’s scheduling brilliance deserves part of the credit. It schedules the first week of summer league just after the Fourth of July, using the momentum of free agency to create buzz.

By playing summer league ball into mid-July, the league effectively captures one of sport’s most barren and coveted week. The three days following the MLB All-Star game are the only time of the year where no major professional or college sport plays. It provides an opportunity for a less popular sport like soccer, or even baseball’s minor leagues to showcase.

But neither sports body effectively utilized the open space. And while we could be sitting down to a serving of MLS’s best rivalries or the future of professional baseball, we indulge in hours of ragtag basketball, players so new to offenses and systems they struggle to properly run the motion. That’s because the NBA captured midsummer. It recognized the sports doldrums of July, a rare open week for conquer. It’s a step quicker than everyone else.

But the NBA most potently marks its territory with NBA free agency. Many have questioned which sport would challenge baseball in the summer months, like basketball, football and hockey all compete for relevancy in winter. The NBA turned free agency into a sport; a competition between teams to strike the most outlandish deals, a race between reporters to break the news.

As a byproduct, fans eye their phones rather than little league games. Their pilgrimages to parks end with sitting on benches and checking NBA rumors.

The NBA found a way to extend its relevancy, transforming its brand from an 82-game, plus playoffs league to something bigger. By embracing gossip and rumors, however false they may be, bizarre predictions, contentious Tweets, colossal contracts, and the circus that comes with free agency, the NBA has created an event that nearly parallels the playoffs in terms of relevancy.

Despite the NFL’s prowess, it fails to garner the same buzz for its free agency period. MLB’s trade deadline draws eyes, but outside of Chicago no one is talking about the Cubs-Sox recent blockbuster deal. Neither draw attention like NBA free agency. When it comes to attraction, the NBA is like a powerful, 80-watt insect killer.

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  • The other two leagues are like off brand, scented candles purchasable at Dollar Tree. Again, the NBA is steps quicker than everyone else.

    There is a byproduct to all this. Or maybe, it’s a cause. It’s kind of a “chicken or egg” question, what came first, the marketability of the NBA players, or the popularity of summer league and free agency, which helps market NBA players? Both boost each other.

    It’s no secret that the NBA has turned into a player’s league, with an emphasis on developing individual brands as opposed to teams. A little anecdotal evidence; I recently oversaw a youth camp filled with high school boys. There were about 15 of them, almost all ardent followers of the NBA. Each was from Illinois, Bulls territory since forever. And none of them were fans of Chicago’s team.

    A couple follow the Thunder, because of Russell Westbook. Others idolized Chris Paul and the Clippers, now switching their allegiance to the Rockets. And a few were Lakers fans, drawn to the team during Kobe Bryant’s heyday. But each was attracted to a team, not because they connected with the franchise. They idolize a player.

    The trend has allowed free agency to explode, as fans frantically tune in to where their favorite player will land. It’s allowed the league to avoid late season interest dips. Regardless of team record, fans will still tune into games to watch their favorite players. And the blowback for players has been generous, leading to big contracts and increased individual clout.

    A brighter mind than I could crunch numbers and lay out empirical data to support this claim. But just observing, NBA players seem to be in more commercials now than in the past. ESPN recently crafted the list of the world’s most popular athletes and it was littered with basketball players. Not a single MLB player qualified.

    Speaking of the MLB, it’s trying to catch up. It’s attempted to better promote its girth of youthful talent over the past couple years. It’s also embracing the concept of shorter contracts with bigger payouts, emphasizing the importance on free agency. There are already questions about where Bryce Harper will end up in 2018. The NFL has followed a similar path.

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    Yet, both leagues are slow, years behind the NBA. They’ll likely catch up and we’ll care more about where Le’Veon Bell than the Pittsburgh Steelers. But by the time the two leagues, and for that matter the NHL catch up, the NBA will already being moving forward.

    Who knows…maybe it’ll be promoting players for political office to bolster its popularity. Whatever the next trend is in league growth, we know the NBA will be at the forefront.