Restructuring D-1 College Basketball As The NBA’s Minor League

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Baseball has what the NBA and major college basketball do not–a player-centered, financially solid model that works for the pros and colleges. 


Courtesy: Baseball Hall of Fame

When Branch Rickey envisioned baseball’s farm system he did it for good reasons. He wanted to bring baseball to the grassroots, develop future big league players, and stimulate fan support for major league teams.

Rickey hit the trifecta. And his bet is as solid today as it was a century ago. MiLB’s 247 teams drew over 41 million fans in 2017, up from 2016. That’s in addition to the nearly 73 million fans who attended MLB games this season.

The MLB farm system is fed by a draft. Some drafted players opt for pro ball. Others go to college. The two systems—minor league ball and college ball—reside side-by-side.

Pro players get paid. College players do not. And there are summer “wooden bat leagues” across the country where college players play without losing collegiate eligibility.

MLB rosters include a blend of players–those who went pro and those who turned pro after playing college ball.

The system works. And it’s a model worth adapting for restructuring basketball.

Yes, the NBA already has a minor league system–The D-League, now called The NBA Gatorade League–but it’s not as well developed as the MLB system and it doesn’t work as well with the college game.

FBI announces charges last week in college basketball’s most recent scandal (photo, Courier-Journal)

Two issues stand out. First, there’s a continuing debate about when players can come into the NBA. Second, there’s the continuing scourge of scandals in major college ball.

The bottom line? The MLB system has served baseball through the decades. The same can’t be said for basketball.

Until now, there has been little interest in redesigning basketball’s system. The current scandal in college ball may change that picture.

Consider what Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski–the winningest coach in the history of college basketball–said earlier this week (following quote courtesy of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, 10/4/17): “The landscape for the player keeps changing. We in college have not changed as much as the landscape has changed. The landscape before we get ’em has changed dramatically. And, certainly, the NBA has changed dramatically with money and One-and-Done. We are not equipped right now to handle that. We don’t have a good model.”

A “good model” to consider is this: adapt the MLB-style farm system in basketball.

Recall that MiLB has 247 teams. NBA’s Gatorade League includes 26 teams. The NBA could retain the Gatorade League by making it–in MLB parlance–a AA league. The NBA’s AAA bracket would be made up of what is now the major college teams in NCAA’s Division 1. By “major college” I mean all teams affiliated with the “Power 6” conferences–SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC-12, and Big East. The NBA would own and manage those clubs as “college franchises”–75 teams in all.

The universities would turn over management of their basketball programs—facilities and names/logos, included–to NBA partners. In return, each NBA team would compensate a school on the basis of an ongoing assessment (per 3-5 year contract) of that team’s market value. Schools would use payments to support other athletic programs and academic programs as seen fit.

Players would be drafted and paid for playing. That means college recruiting would end, as would the debate about paying players. College attendance would be optional.

Competition would take place among the 75 NBA-managed programs. Other D-1 programs (the mid-major schools) would compete separately, overseen by the NCAA. The current Power 6 conference organization would cease for basketball but would remain in place for other sports. The basketball configuration would be regional with 14-16 teams bracketed in each division.

There would be two major season-ending tournaments–one managed by the NBA, the other managed by the NCAA. The NBA Gatorade championship would continue, as would the D-II and D-III NCAA championships.

Courtesy: FanSided

What would my proposal offer?

Kids with the talent and desire to ‘go pro’ would be able to do that immediately after graduating from high school. Expanding access should reduce (at least in theory) the prospect of luring college-bound players through financial inducements. And the option would still be there for kids who want to be true student-athletes. They can play for other schools and–just as in the MLB system–“go pro” later.

Making major college basketball the NBA’s minor league-with a draft in place-puts an end to a major source of college basketball’s ills–recruiting. In the system I propose, college coaches would focus on coaching and not have to worry about “attracting.”

The model would do something else–end a charade. There’s a monumental gap between higher education’s mission and major college sports, no matter what the NCAA, conference commissioners. and university presidents/chancellors say. Besides, it’s obvious that many universities and the NCAA aren’t capable of running programs effectively, even ethically in some cases. Let the professionals run what has evolved over the years into a professional enterprise.

If we don’t make major change, you know what will happen. Just as soon as things calm down (from the most recent scandal), college basketball will return to business as usual…until the next scandal hits. Such is the biorhythm of major college basketball.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas’ sees it that way. (Watch him at ESPN’s Outside The Lines, 10/3/17). And Bilas isn’t wrong, and he’s not cynical either. He’s simply predicting the future based on today’s status quo.

I’d like to see that status quo changed. But I don’t see major change (or anything worth pursuing) coming from higher education. I believe the path to a new normal–likely the only path–is for the NBA to make an offer that the NCAA, conferences, and universities can’t resist. If Commissioner Silver did that, then he’d do for basketball what Branch Rickey did for baseball a century ago.

I wish. I hope. I dream. I really dream…. How so? I’d like to see Power 5 conference football become the NFL’s minor league.

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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