How the NBA and NCAA Stifle Innovation

During and after the Olympics, I saw many from Australia and the U.K tweet about school sports and ask whether their sports systems would be better if sports were more engrained in the schools, as they are in the U.S. Since the U.S. generally sits atop the medal count and has the most interwoven school sports system, it is a fair question.

In sports with less revenue, high school and NCAA sports fuel the U.S.’s success. Would the U.S. have the depth of talent in swimming if there were no swimming scholarships or competitions for college swimmers? I doubt it. How many 18-year-olds would continue training at that level just for the potential of making the Olympics without sponsorship money (which tends to come after one performs well on a big stage) or a scholarship? Some would continue, of course, but would the U.S. be as strong if the depth of talent dwindled and the number of competitions decreased? Someone like Missy Franklin who won big at 17-years-old would do fine because she could cash in on her fame and earn a nice income from sponsors. But, what about those who just missed the Olympics this year as a 17, 18, 19 or 20-year-old? Would they continue training or would they hang up their goggles to pursue a college education, maybe having to work to pay for school? If they decided to continue training, would they have the resources to pay for coaches?

The school system – whether high school or college – provides its athletes with many services. Imagine the costs to an athlete training on his or her own and having to pay a coach, a strength coach, a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, etc.

However, for sports with more revenue, the advantages for U.S. athletes have a cost. Watch this video about Lolo Jones and Red Bull Project X:

That sophistication, technology, and science is available. However, how many high school or universities can afford the technology and the science and the staff who can use it? Few, if any. That type of technology could enhance the training of athletes in many sports, but the costs are prohibitive.

In sports with lots of revenue, it is possible for this type of technology and science to be made available to developing athletes. However, the school system is an impediment to this type of innovation in U.S. sports, so these advances are only available to professional athletes and teams with lots of money to spend.

When an NBA team drafts an international player, it can pay $500k to the player’s club to buy out his contract. When an NBA team drafts a college player, there is no payment. When a college signs a player to a scholarship, there is no payment. Therefore, there is no way for a club, trainer, or organization to profit from player development.

In European soccer, as an example, a club like Ajax signs a young player to a contract. The club develops the player’s talent. When the player signs a professional contract, he either plays for Ajax’s top team or Ajax receives a payout from a club wanting to buy the contract of the player. Therefore, Ajax has an incentive to invest in sports science, technology, etc. because if it develops more and better players, it’s club will perform better and/or it will reap financial benefits from the development. Therefore, clubs like Ajax are motivated to stay on the cutting edge of soccer, sports science, technology, etc., which leads to innovation and new training ideas that eventually filter to other clubs, nations, organizations, etc.

NBA teams have no incentive to invest in the development of adolescent players because an NBA team cannot benefit. If the Utah Jazz were to fund a player development center in Salt Lake City and hire the best sports science and coaching staff in the world, any player who went through the center would be subject to the NBA Draft. If the center developed the next LeBron James or Kevin Durant, the Jazz would be unlikely to benefit unless it happened to get lucky in the lottery (which also requires not being very good). Therefore, despite the huge television contracts and ticket prices, NBA teams do not have these type of development centers for adolescent players. Whereas an Ajax player can bring a huge return on investment (let’s say it costs $50,000/year to train a player for 12 years, but Ajax sells the player to an EPL team for $2.5 million, that’s nearly $2 million in profit, which covers a lot of players who never make it), the NBA has no recourse for recouping its investment.

The same occurs with NCAA athletes. If Lolo Jones was running for LSU, she would not have had access to the technology or sports scientists because it originated from her sponsorship with Red Bull. Would she have returned from spinal surgery to almost grab a medal in less than a year without that sponsorship, technology, science, and extra training? Doubtful. Could some younger athletes perform better in international competitions if they had access to this type of technology and training at younger ages rather than having to wait until they are 20 or 21 or older?

What if entering freshmen had the same access to training as those preparing for the NBA draft? What if high-school players had access to this type of training and technology? It’s available, it’s possible, but the costs are still prohibitive. How many parents have the means to pay for this type of training and technology for their 16-year-old with no guarantee that they will reap the benefits of a professional career? With Ajax, that $2 million profit allows the club to cast a wide net and miss on many players; a parent would have to hit the big time to afford the training for an adolescent. Ajax probably needs about a 20% success rate; a parent would need a 100% success rate. Who wants to take that gamble?

An organization like a club team, however, could take that gamble. If a club team could sign players to a contract and sell the contract to a university of NBA team, it could finance incredible innovations that would eventually trickle down to everyone.

Of course, this presents a number of other moral, ethical, and logistical issues. The point is not that it’s perfect. Instead, the point is that despite what anyone wants to believe, the training for high school and college players could be much more advanced, but there is no way to pay for this innovation because of the way that the school sports system is structured.

On the whole, the positives of the school sports system in terms of developing elite athletes outweighs the negatives. However, there are negatives. While other countries wonder if the U.S. school sports system is the best system, it may be: It provides facilities for adolescents that are the envy of almost the entire world, coaching, strength training, and more that would be cost prohibitive for many families outside the school system. However, the school system, college scholarships, and professional drafts also limit the innovation. The good comes with the bad.

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