NBA D-League Operations Explained: Part 2

League-Wide Advertising and the D-League

The NBA D-League’s partnership with Gatorade is unprecedented for sports in the United States. No other minor league, let alone any sports league in the US features a league wide sponsorship. With this move, the NBA will also receive “performance and recovery analysis” from Gatorade. But aside from the branding of jerseys and potential headache to say G-League, rather than D-League, not much is known of the partnership.

How will this move affect the future of the NBA’s minor league?

D-League teams have already embraced sponsorships, with several teams featuring prominently displayed corporate logos on their jerseys. The Gatorade sponsorship and team specific sponsors signal the changing relationship of sports and the corporate world.

NBA clubs will feature patches on their jerseys beginning in the 2017/18 season. Several teams have already announced partnerships, ranging from charities to electric companies. Out of all North American sports leagues, Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA have embraced corporate sponsorship the most.

The terms of the D-League rebranding into the NBA Gatorade League were undisclosed. But the revenue from sponsorships for NBA clubs may give a clue into the G-League move. Patches for NBA teams will range from $4-8 million per season, per Forbes.

The entire D-League will be rebranded with this move, and Gatorade branding will likely be featured on all G-League jerseys. If a small patch can cost corporations around $5 million, the rebranding of an entire minor league could net a similar amount – even with much less visibility.

Let’s use a conservative estimate and assume that the Gatorade deal was worth $3 million. With 25 teams in the G-League next season, each team could earn up to $120,000 in additional advertising revenue. Additionally, NBA franchises could use the additional revenue from jersey sponsorships to completely finance their minor league clubs. Sponsorships may not benefit NBA players, but they could prove crucial to providing decent wages for coaches, players, and staff on the fringes of the NBA.

The rebranding of the D-League to the G-League may accelerate the expansion and development of the NBA’s minor league. Here are a few changes that could occur.

Expansion

With the cushion of a large corporate sponsor, NBA teams unwilling to make the extra financial commitment may be more inclined to purchase, or invest in a G-League Affiliate. According to Yahoo’s Bobby Marks, the cost of starting a D-League team and hiring a completely new staff is between $6-8 million. While that may be a hefty price for some teams, it could pay dividends for player development.

Washington, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, and the Clippers may need a D-League team to scout fringe players in the future. Competing, salary capped teams that need cheap rotation players (Clippers, Wizards), teams looking to develop their young talent (Nuggets, Trail Blazers) or a team with DeMarcus Cousins (Pelicans) would benefit from a minor league team to evaluate unheralded talent, or develop their own young players.

The expansion of the G-League to 30 teams may happen as quickly as 2020. Atlanta, Orlando, Memphis, and Milwaukee all announced expansion teams to debut in the 2017-2018 season just this year. These announcements were made relatively quickly amidst a busy NBA season for all of these clubs. All five franchises without a G-League team have several potential markets that have the infrastructure and proximity to support an expansion team.

Denver Nuggets – Omaha, Colorado Springs, Boulder1

Los Angeles Clippers – Anaheim, San Diego, Bakersfield

New Orleans Pelicans – Baton Rouge, Biloxi, Mobile

Portland Trail Blazers – Seattle (sorry, Sonics fans), Eugene, Tacoma, Boise

Washington Wizards – Baltimore, Richmond, College Park

Even if these teams are unable to find a suitable city to start their team, they have the option of housing their G-League team in their own city. Oklahoma City, Utah, and the Lakers each host their current D-League teams in the same city as the parent club. This season, the Long Island Nets and Brooklyn Nets share the Barclays Center as a home court.

The likelihood of a 1:1 NBA:NBGL team ratio may increase with an influx of cash, and a continued focus on development league-wide. It would create up to 60 new jobs for fringe NBA players (D-League maximum roster size is 12), and even more for coaches, trainers, and other staff involved in basketball operations. G-League expansion would facilitate ease of access for teams to control development of prospects, and to scout potential 10-day contract candidates.

Salary Reform

In the next few years, there will be much more money floating around in the NBA and in the G-League with corporate sponsorships and TV money trickling in. With salaries increasing all around (and new NBA General Managers making more than $5 million), the newly christened G-League should at least see some change in salary structure. Whether that reform is seen next season is unclear.

Sixty players out of three hundred possible G-League players will make between $50,000 and $75,000 next season under two-way contracts. That accounts for 20% of the league’s players. The players comprising the other 80% will make less than $26,000 if the D-League salary structure remains intact.

Even a slight increase (compared to NBA salaries) in the D-League salary cap could make a difference. Going from $209,000 in total salaries to $500,000 would potentially double the money earned by D-League players. Players could make between $30,000 and $50,000, including the $75,000 allocated to two-way players. With NBA team salaries increasing by nearly $20 million, (that’s an increase of 100-times the total salaries of D-League teams this season) G-League players should see some benefits.

Veterans

The attractiveness of playing in the G-League would be increased with reformed salaries. This would open the door for an influx of talent to the league. Several fringe NBA veterans choose to play overseas if they can’t find NBA suitors for much greater earning potential. Many of them are locked into season long contracts, preventing them from signing onto talent-deprived NBA teams.

Decent end of bench options like Donald Sloan, J.J. Hickson, and Josh Smith could be on NBA rosters today if minor league pay was increased and they chose to spend their season in the minors.

The mere presence of NBA vets would aid in development of young players. Experienced NBA players that may not make it back to the NBA could guide young G-League players. This guidance may extend beyond the court, where young players will learn how to be professionals from an experienced player. An NBA vet like Shelden Williams, who last played professionally in 2015, would have been just one example of a fringe player that would help young basketball pros. Williams, 33, is currently a college scout.

With veterans, bad habits would be less likely to develop, and coaching staffs could benefit from pseudo-teachers on the court. Currently, young players may not improve just by playing big minutes in a high-paced league.  The actual on-court product may dial down on the pace with experienced veterans to complement younger talent. Some players need guidance and the occasional authoritative voice to maximize their skills. In the current D-League format, players may not have the right players around them to elevate their game to the next level

One and Done?

All NBA players that played high school basketball in the United States must wait one year after high school graduation to enter the NBA Draft. A majority of NBA prospects spend their year in college, knowing full well that they will leave as soon as their freshman seasons wind down. Obviously, the one and done phenomenon is now the norm. But there have been some notable exceptions. Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay were two highly touted point guards that played overseas in their one and done year. This season, first round prospect Terrance Ferguson chose to play (and get paid) in Australia, rather than committing to a University.

Yes, the G-League will inevitably not have as much exposure as a big-time NCAA game. A great performance in the G-League Playoffs may not improve a prospect’s stock as much as a clutch game in the NCAA Tournament, or even the Conference Tournaments. But for high-profile prospects, the level of competition they play in may not even matter. Competing and dominating against grown men, rather than rival college teams may be more impressive than strong college performances. The opportunity to earn a decent paycheck, while playing against solid competition may be worth bypassing the NCAA.

One important takeaway from the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is that American players that choose to bypass the NCAA will be automatically draft eligible after one year. That may be an issue for players whose draft stock drops during the year. The modification of this rule may be a change to look out for if more players pursue the prep to pro route.

International players can declare for the draft any time they want from the age of 19 to 22, no matter what league they play in. Even if salaries are not reformed, players that choose options other than college should have more autonomy in declaring for the NBA Draft.

International Talent

For international NBA prospects, earning minutes on European squads may be difficult. With 40-minute games and an overall slower pace, young players may not receive many minutes. With the exception of Mega Leks (the team with pink and green jerseys), European teams tend to play their veterans over their younger players.

With a youth system more akin to soccer, there is no benefit to “tanking” or developing young players over the long-term. Teams can lose their best young players to the NBA, or to rival teams or other leagues. Dragan Bender, the fourth overall pick in 2016, only played 10 minutes per game in his final season with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The number three pick in 2016, Jaylen Brown, played 27 minutes per game in his lone season at Cal.

The G-League may be the best option for young international players going forward, provided that salary reform is in the works. It will allow international players to adjust to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game. NBA scouts will have a better look at players that would have been buried on the bench of Euroleague teams.

For the players, playing in the G-League would help them adjust to life in the NBA culturally, an understated aspect of life as a professional basketball player. International players would also add to the overall talent of the league, making games more competitive and less chaotic. Even veteran international players could benefit from playing in the G-League. Solid international players on the cusp of the NBA could earn themselves a 10-day contract if they commit to spending some time in the G-League.

Competition

With decent salaries, the overall dynamic of the G-League could change. Rather than being the seventh or eighth best basketball league in the world, adding salaries comparable to overseas teams would attract the best non-NBA domestic and international talent. Ideally, the 12 spots on each roster would be filled with a mix of veterans and prospects, mandated by the parent club.

Roster spots would be coveted. Players would likely opt to play team ball, rather than resorting to the hero ball that’s often seen in current D-League games. Parent clubs could set continuity within their G-League affiliates. They could essentially use the G-League to develop players over the long-term, rather than just looking for players that would make a difference right away. There has often been high roster turnover year after year in the G-League. Salary reform could change that.

Summary

Hypothetically, revenue from a league wide sponsorship should trickle down to benefit the people involved with the G-League. It would be healthy for the NBA’s minor league, and possibly basketball as a whole. But as of yet, there has been no indication of changing salary structure.

While reform may not have been outlined in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there still may be possibility for things to change. Adam Silver and the NBA itself may issue the mandate for G-League reform, rather than deliberating with the NBA Player’s Association.

The NBA regular season is coming to a close and it may be time to examine these issues more closely. With an increase in sponsorships league wide, it may be time to capitalize on fully establishing a solid, consistent basketball minor league on American soil. Like a lottery pick, the NBA G-League has incredible potential for fans, players, and organizations alike.


  1. http://www.denverpost.com/2016/10/01/denver-nuggets-d-league-affiliate/ 

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