Swashbuckling, Globetrotting, Barnstorming Adventure Networks in the midst of the NBA’s Labor Management Abyss?

The thought of player overseas movement as a partial means to offset the heavy leverage held by NBA Ownership is taking flight quite rapidly. Several  recent articles have explored different angles of the possibility of a player migration abroad to Europe, China or elsewhere. That possibility presents many hopes and pitfalls for players and a players union once viewed as pampered and privileged and with little real leverage or resolve.

A recent article discussed the move by  Deron Williams, and other less marquee players abroad, as reflecting a players mindset much different than that reflected in the notable quotes from NBAPA members Patrick Ewing and Kenny Anderson circa the 1999 lockout. The comments (if you don’t recall) cast the players of that generation in a shallow, pampered and privileged light – (has much really changed with Lebron and company in south Beach). Well maybe according to this writer who speculates that the stated reasons for Williams migration to Europe reflects a different players mentality than that about a decade ago. This time out the mindset is about exploring the opportunity provided by the lockout to play overseas and experience a different locale. Again didn’t this sorta happen even within the NBA when Lebron smoked backwater Cleveland for the bright lights, white sand beaches and “sights” of Miami’s South Beach?

It’s possible that an adventurous spirit could be part of the players election to play overseas this time around. Sure that may make the current Player v. Ownership standoff somewhat different if players move in significant numbers abroad. But NBA observers point to the stark and harsh lifestyle changes that players experience while playing abroad as a likely test of the players resolve. One article offers a critical perspective from current american players abroad and a current NBA player who tested the overseas market.  Both pointed out the challenges of playing abroad that will face NBA Players. Those changes include:

– crowded and less luxurious travel and hotel accommodations,
– smaller and less accommodating (read weather controlled) venues,
– rowdier crowds (hometown fans have been noted to pelt rival team’s players with hard objects),
– contract payments not being honored when a team struggles or a player underperforms (many players elect not to avail themselves of a legal remedy given the time, cost and frustration of that avenue of relief),
– a different more team oriented style of play.

Whether today’s NBA players can adapt to the tougher circumstances of playing abroad remains to be seen . The ability of players to adapt, may be the better mark of whether today’s NBA player is truly more resilient than their predecessors.  The answer to that question maybe one means of gauging the strength of the leverage of the players overseas option.

Still in addition to the lifestyle challenges of playing overseas, other hurdles face NBA players even before they can take their talents to their next escapade abroad. An article on that topic list a myriad of hurdles that face NBA players aspiring to play abroad. Those hurdles include:

– Securing insurance in the event of a career ending injury or injury that lessens player value,
– negotiating a contract with an opt out clause in the even the player v. ownership standoff is resolved and the lockout is lifted,
– analogously finding an overseas team that will accept a player on board for a limited time basis pending the results of the lockout.

The issue of securing a flexible duration overseas contract pending a resolution of the lockout appears to be the most difficult hurdle for players electing to head overseas. From what has been reported that hurdle is easier for marquee players to navigate. That is the case because of a marquee player’s impact as a major ticket attraction and possible marketing avenues they open for the player and team while abroad.

However, those advantages do not avail the middling veteran, journeymen or young talented yet non marquee caliber players who constitute the majority of the NBAs players.  As I mentioned previously, I doubt that a trickle of overseas players (primarily stars) will have much of an impact on the leverage the NBAPA seeks to offset against NBA ownership. A more concerted effort would still be required.  Certainly the NBAPA’s blessing was a step in the right  direction to the extent it clarified the Unions position with regards to a players ability to play overseas. But as an organization charged with representing the interest of their constituents at the labor / management bargaining table the ability of the NBAPA to do more towards a concerted effort at offsetting ownerships formidable leverage is quite limited.

However, the answer may lay within the means, agendas and networks at the disposal of NBA Player agents.  Given their vital role in representing their clients individual interest, it may just be player agents who make just as big an impact as marquee players (like Deron Williams). Given an agents central role in securing, coordinating and maintaining their players gainful and lucrative employment via contracts for pay and endorsements deals, player agents may very well be central towards influencing the tide of the current Player v. Management standoff. There’s no doubt that player agents have an interest (they draw their earnings from a cut of the players income they help secure) in using their skill sets and networks to bolster their clients opportunities abroad and as a result their players leverage at home.

Such a possibility is not beyond reason. For instance, Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, has been discussing the possibility of coordinating a group of his clients for a barnstorming tour of China. Barnstorming? Yes. Barnstomring! Defined in part as the practice of “traveling around an area appearing in exhibition sports events.” In this instance an NBA agent with an assembly of his clientele (all NBA caliber players) romping around like a goliath in the lucrative Chinese overseas market or elsewhere.

Talented players have teamed up before for such romps. Just recall how the CAA coordinated union of Dwayne Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh tore through the league prior to falling short of an NBA title.  The possibility seems intriguing in that a barnstorming team of the agents players would not be subject to the language barriers of international play, may secure better travel and rest options (perhaps even financing options given that an agent would want to insure that his team gets paid) than that afforded by an overseas team. Agents could coordinate and use the draw of such a tour to coordinate marketing and promotional opportunities – drawing greater exposure to a product or the brand of the player agent and players. Agents may also get a chance to scout prospective overseas clients and expand his base internationally. 

While players at this stage in the NBA lockout are still weighing several options with a return to school, the European market and the apparently the more lucrative Chinese market, barnstorming tours may have some legs. As stated before that option could allow an agent to organize a collection of his players – marquee and or non marquee – for a promotional tour that could open up additional marketing, branding and exposure opportunities for all involved. Barnstorming teams could also be an option for agents who may not be able to secure non marquee players a flexible “opt-out” deals with a European team (though such contracts are apparently easier to obtain in China). The idea of barnstorming, hinted at first by agent Rob Pelinka, could at least be worth a further look.