The state of basketball in 2020.

With the recent death of former NBA commissioner David Stern, the Cynic made the ad-hoc decision to produce a brief treatise on the state of basketball in 2020.

It should first be pointed out that commissioner Stern took over an NBA that had just started a rebound from a state of almost complete public apathy. He left it a healthy, wealthy and growing sports league, with a product that was much different than it was his first day on the job.

The state of basketball is representative of the state of sports in general in 2020. All sports, college and professional, have the same concerns. They can all be summed up in one word: money. Probably the correct concern for the professional ranks since, after all, they are businesses. Colleges, on the other hand, are not. Nevertheless, colleges have bartered their athletic souls to the highest bidders, and the bidders could care less about anything but money.

A quick look at basketball over the last 40 years finds that rules of the game and the arenas in which it is played have changed, in some cases dramatically. In 1980, few if any venues contained “suites” or any other of the “table and chair” sections (complete with waiters and waitresses) that are standard in every professional and most major college arenas. In some cities, venues have been constructed and demolished within this time frame. They did not contain the necessary luxury amenities to attract the money from the big corporate buyers. Arena suites allow corporations, at great expense, to provide bread and circuses to their customers. Forty years ago, the rich sat in the same seats as the average fan, and though their seats were closer, the amenities were the same.

Look around every arena. Under the press table, on the scoreboard, and on virtually every flat surface, one can see advertisements. Even most floors now have them! In addition, most arenas are named for the largest advertisers in the area.

This eventuality was probably inevitable. The professional teams are businesses and the people running them are rewarded on maximizing the net worth of the organization. The colleges, which have presidents and athletic directors who are not nearly as smart as the executives in the NBA, only had to follow suit.

Though it has always been a policy of most colleges to sell the best seats to the biggest donors, it is now quite common in the major schools to require a donation of over a half-million dollars, just for the right to buy the best season tickets. Sadly, many of these seats remain empty, or they are given away due to lack of interest.

Perhaps the most clever and most sinister thing the NBA did was to persuade the NCAA to change the college rules to closely mirror those in the pros. Not all at once — first, the NCAA experimented with the three-point line. After several changes, there seemed to finally be agreement to keep the distance just over twenty-two feet.

Then came the shot clock. “Just an experiment” began at 45 seconds (in fact, when it first appeared, it was turned off with two minutes left in the game — this was at the insistence of the most powerful schools), then was adjusted to 35. Finally, the colleges decided to play the game with a 30-second shot clock (the same clock the old American Basketball Association played with).

The Cynic needs to explain why this is bad. The shot clock is an abomination. Not for the NBA, mind you — in the NBA every team has several players who are good shooters. College is different. There are approximately two hundred Division I teams as opposed to thirty teams in the NBA. There simply aren’t that many good shooters coming out of high school, with the best only stopping for one year before moving on to the pros.

So what? These are the same numbers that existed before the shot clock. So, what is different?

Before the shot clock, a team with any one or two good shooters could work the ball without concern for the clock. When, at last, they were able to get the ball in the hands of a shooter — in position to take a good shot — they had their best opportunity to score. This was a game that had as much to do with strategy and technique as it did with athletic play. The absence of the shot clock allowed a less talented team to be competitive. The advent of the shot clock made this kind of basketball passé.

Now teams, mostly full of bad shooters, run up and down the court. They take hurried shots. They take three-point shots, and they miss most of them. The game is, not surprisingly, much faster. The game is also, not surprisingly, boring.

Toward the middle of the season, in both college and pro, one will begin to see empty seats in the arenas. Although the tickets have been sold, the fans just don’t show up — again, due to lack of interest.

What is the result of these changes? Most, if not all, of the benefits from the rule changes have redound to the NBA. Why would the average fan prefer to watch a team of poorly-skilled athletes play when he has the opportunity the opportunity to watch the best and most skilled athletes in the world? If the rules are the same, the decision will always favor the best.

Another result of these rule changes has been to drive a number of fans away from the college game. Some will, as mentioned above, transfer their allegiance to a professional team, while others will stay away until their particular school is able to floor a superior team, but many will simply stop watching.

The dirty secret? No one cares. The college leagues have expanded. In most cases the expansion has not been due to anything other than the opportunity to add attractive media markets. Most college athletic conferences have their own television networks. The revenue received by each school from the networks far surpasses anything (in most schools) their athletic departments were able to generate in the past. In most states, the highest paid public employee is a college coach. It is clear that college athletics has discovered the goose that lays eggs of gold. The Cynic just doesn’t believe they will be able to resist the temptation to cut it open.

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