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The Competitve Balance Myth


I’m fascinated enough by David Stern blocking a trade to engage in some rare NBA-related blogging. A few points:

  • I don’t really know enough to make this judgment, so correct me if I’m wrong, but is it even obvious that the Lakers won this trade?  Trading their big men to build around stars at the 1 and 2, does that ever work?  Wouldn’t it be much worse for Laker-haters (and I’m sure I’d be one) if they ended up with Dwight Howard because of this?  And how does preventing the Hornets from getting quality for Paul help small markets?
  • As an Expos fan this is visceral, but having single teams owned by the league is a terrible, terrible idea.   If it’s necessary, the principle that the sports operations should remain autonomous seems crucial.
  • Was this letter written in comic sans?

But what’s most entertaining to me is that not only were most of the press and the fans hoodwinked into thinking that the strike lockout was about competitive balance, but some of the small market owners were as well.    Gibert et al. seemed genuinely surprised that, even though they grabbed a lot of money from the players, individual players would still want to play for big market teams and the new labor deal wouldn’t stop them.

Speaking of these delusions, a commenter applies similar logic to the NCAA cartel:

The NCAA has no power to forbid any university from doing anything, except as a condition to play in the association. Any college can pay anyone whatever it likes; it just cannot continue to play in “sanctioned” competitions. The NBA and NHL each have a salary cap to maintain competitive balance; the NCAA’s salary cap is zero. But the purpose remains to maintain competitive balance.


Meanwhile, enough crocodile tears about “exploited football players” from people whose real agenda is to allow their preferred “university” to obtain the best talent possible. Better that that outrage be directed toward those who would destroy what’s left of working people’s rights.


  • Right, denying players any compensation is about competitive balance.   And Hammer v. Dagenhart is a children’s rights decision.
  • If this was the motivation for the NCAA cartel, it’s a massive failure.  I hate to break this to you, but the established programs get the best players already.   If anything, not being allowed to compete on compensation makes the entrenched advantages of a perennial winner even more decisive.  The leagues that pay their players have far, far, far, far more competitive balance.   The vast majority of NCAA football programs have no chance of competing for the national championship in the short, medium, or long term.  One of the featured teams in this year’s particularly dreary championship game played laughably uncompetitive games against Kent State, Georgia Southern and North Texas, as well as some perennial doormats whose beating Alabama would be a once-in-several-decades upset, like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.  This is pretty typical; elite teams generally play half their games against teams that have no chance at all of beating them.   If this is your argument for players not being allowed to be compensated when the NCAA sells merchandise with their likeness, it’s a gigantic fail.

And yet, the idea that stuffing more money into the pockets of owners/NCAA administrators is really about competitive balance remains durable.   Howard Bryant has the antidote.

…I wasn’t sure if Yglesias would be allowed to do NBA blogging at the new gig, but he was, and I probably could have just outsourced to him.

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