Ramona Shelburne wrote an interesting piece on the ESPN website in which she observes that the new NBA superstars are not as loyal to the franchise name as they are to their own brand. Guys like LeBron and Kobe are worldwide brands selling all manner of things. Unlike team equipment, much of the merchandise and endorsement money they earn goes directly to them, not their team. She observes:
Since LeBron James' infamous 2010 decision, the rest of the NBA's best young stars have chosen to play with the rest of the NBA's best young stars. Franchise history and Q-rating have mattered little.
It's at this point that the old guard starts railing about a generation of highlight-seeking, fundamental-lacking, self-absorbed superstars who have no concept of team basketball.
But while the old guard rails, the young men running today's NBA have been cozying up to Wall Street CEOs and sitting in marketing meetings with the shoe companies and Madison Avenue executives who have been doing a better job at building their brands than individual NBA teams for the past couple of decades.
The message those CEOs and "mad men" deliver is simple: The sooner you win, the better your brand becomes. The more you win, the bigger your brand grows. James was the test case, and is now the example they all follow.
I appreciate Shelburne's insight and respect her perseverance in the hyper-male sports industry, but I think there is a further dimension to explore in her essay: race. A lot of the head shaking, state-of-the-association bemoaning needs to be reconsidered in light of the racial composition of the NBA.
The transcendent black athlete has always been controversial in US sports, right? But to bemoan the loss of team brand loyalty as the athletes themselves become the brand runs the risk of hoping black athletes would remain loyal to white billionaires who begrudge the athlete's freedom. (Just look at the last collective bargaining agreement trying to limit player movement. -they don't do that for day laborers.) I'm still mad Howard left the Lakers - the Lakers are the home team, but it might be a good thing that the players are not under the thumb of the perennially wealthy WASP club. (Who also donate to particular political campaigns....but that's another post) Labor has a larger voice, in essence.
Of course, the sub-elite players still have their financial success tied to the franchise's performance, so the good-ole' boy team brand billionaire club isn't going away. As Goldman-Sachs demonstrated, billionaires are good at avoiding that. At least at the top, there is a class of NBA athlete - largely black- that is less obligated to them, and earning what the market commands. (yeah, I know -market economy is a whole nother deal, too.)