The NBA clearly endorses the formation of "super teams," a concentration of stars on the premier teams in the league. While this draws casual fans from all reaches of the world, it also causes hardcore fans to abandon the league and lose passion for their teams.
Should the NBA cater to the casual fans despite the negative impact on the game?
Super teams are becoming a greater trend within the NBA. The Miami Heat’s “Big Three,” consisting of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won their first NBA title together in 2012.
This offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers assembled their own cast of stars acquiring both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to add to the power of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets – teams that are both in the biggest sports market in the country – put together teams full of notable players that left smaller markets in Cleveland, Ohio; Toronto, Ontario; Orlando, Fla. and Phoenix, Ariz., which are now significantly worse off.
Super teams have thrown off the competitive balance in the NBA. The NBA season hasn’t started yet, and only three teams have 10:1 or better odds to win the NBA Championship. That leaves 27 other NBA teams with very limited chances. In comparison, the NFL season is nearly half over, yet eight teams have 10:1 or better odds.
This wide disparity does not appear by chance. Sure, super teams tend to appear in greater numbers in larger and more attractive markets like New York City and Los Angeles, but the league fuels those markets. The NBA purposely includes rules to facilitate the concentration of the best players in the biggest markets.
The soft cap – in which teams can use certain exceptions to exceed the spending limit – is what allows the Heat to continue to add impact players like Ray Allen every offseason despite committing maximum contracts to the Big Three.
Teams are punished by the luxury tax once they hit a certain threshold, but the teams that have the most revenue – usually the teams in the biggest markets – are able to afford this tax. On the other end of the spectrum, it is extremely difficult for small-market teams to attract stars and spend the money to put quality teams around them.
National television networks can only broadcast a limited number of games throughout the season, so the best teams end up taking a vast majority of this time. If the best players are concentrated on these teams, fans will be able to view all the marquee players they want to see on national television.
Though this may appear to be good for the league as a whole, more equality is significantly better if the goal is to cultivate local interest in basketball. If fans feel that their local teams have a legitimate chance to compete for the championship, they will become passionate about their particular team.
This would not only help flesh out fan bases, but the games themselves. Regular season competition would become more important and the early rounds of playoffs would be much more competitive.
To correct this trend, the NBA can look to institute a hard cap on salary in the next collective bargaining agreement. This new hard cap would not allow any exceptions for teams to exceed the spending limit, unlike the current soft cap.
If every team has the same amount of money to spend, the teams will inevitably become more equal. Marquee players would flock to the biggest markets, but a hard cap would make it much harder to field a quality team around a group of stars.
The super-team phenomenon does not look like it will go away any time soon, so fans need to become used to it for the time being. While TV ratings continue to rise and the NBA reaches more global fans, the grassroots fans have been most affected by this trend.
Casual league-wide fans are important for the health of the league, but the NBA seems to have forgotten that loyal fans are also extremely important. It’s likely that a select group of teams will continue to dominate while the rest flounder in mediocrity.