Kawhi Just Re-Wrote The Script For Pro Sports In North America: Talent Calls The Shots
Okay class. Construct a headline from the following: Kawhi Leonard spurns the Raptors in the middle of the night for his hometown team, the L.A. Clippers. At the same moment southern California experiences a 7.1 earthquake.
Toronto Finds Fault Line With The Klaw? Star Power Tops Drake Expectations? Toronto Wakes, L.A. Quakes? Entries will be judged on creativity and cruelty. First prize is 2 tickets to a Raptors game next season. Second prize is 4 tickets to a Raptors game next season.
The NBA version of The Bachelor has ended as many Canadians thought it might. Toronto was just a little too far away from Leonard’s home. Too exotic for an NBA millionaire to navigate. The Raptors couldn’t come up with the other parts— Paul George, Russell Westbrook— to keep Kawhi happy winning NBA titles.
However you slice it, he absconded— fittingly the deal was announced at 2 AM ET— and the Raptors are left with a May/ September romance, an NBA title and a cupboard bare of star power for the 2019-2020 season. Honestly, when you’re born Canadian you realize that this is what you get. American media dorks talking about Toronto being too cold when it’s actually south of Minnesota and Milwaukee and has the same weather as Chicago and Boston in the winter.
We’ll leave the handicapping of the title race to others for now. What’s most important about the Leonard sweepstakes is the template it creates for pro sports in North America. The creation of super teams surrounding the elite players of the NBA is now officially a thing. To paraphrase Yeats, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible sports beauty is born”.
As usual, LeBron James created the instruction manual. Choose a team with a base of talent and lots of salary cap space. Invite a few of your All-Star pals to join you there. Win a few titles. Put up awesome TV ratings. Then skip to the next willing franchise. LeBron performed the act in Miami then returned to Cleveland. Now James is attempting to replicate his formula with the L.A. Lakers.
The Golden State Warriors emulated the LeBron model in Oakland around Steph Curry. The team has been in the last four NBA Finals, winning twice. Having proved his credentials against the Warriors in Toronto, Leonard is now hoping to create a super team with the Clippers. (James’ gambit with the Lakers juiced the deal.)
Of course this is all anathema to those who believe in the sacred notion of parity, the concept of the plucky underdog, the crest on the chest. Like commissioners of leagues trying to keep as many franchises alive, they profess to be about variety as the spice of life.
Perhaps, but that ship has sailed. As I write in my book Cap In Hand there is a new sports model taking over, and it will not be kind to markets that can’t compete. Want to see how looks? Watch European soccer. Best on best. Limited numbers in the elite divisions. Relegation/ promotion. Global promotion. Play at the level you can afford.
There are the expected arguments from fans against this encroaching model. They complain that they don’t want to see the same big-market teams win all the time. These fans bemoan clear-cutting rosters. They claim to like salary caps.
They lie. While they say want parity they actually want their team to win. Or they want to see the best play the best. That’s the truth.
This loyalty of traditionalists to the crest on the chest is quaint, but a new generation see sports differently. The advent of FanDuel and fantasy sports means that there are as many “teams” every night as there are fans rooting for their own selections. The legalization of casino sports betting across America also means that fans will be loyal to their money as much as their heart.
The complaint that no one wants to see the LeBron/ Kawhi model? TV ratings remain bullish, advertisers still embrace the NBA and soccer— and their stars are global, not continental stars. If repeat champions bore the market why are NCAA football powerhouses Ohio State or Alabama still embraced by fans? Or NCAA hoops powers Duke, Kansas or North Carolina?
Want to know why this is the model of the future? Because Gary Bettman and his NHL owners think that the franchise model/ salary cap scheme they’ve employed forever needs to be reinforced. Again. Bettman is still selling the 1980s KFC franchise model, not what a modern sports league needs to do to prosper.
This follows our motto: Any business model embraced by Gary is a model not worth buying. Spread your stars across 32 cities, let them moulder in small markets that never make the playoffs. Promote mediocrity with reverse drafts for losers. Tolerate tanking. Until the NHL gets a more enlightened commissioner it will remain an afterthought in the market.
So give Kawhi his due or curse him as a money grubber. His move in the middle of the night has pushed pro sports into a new realm. Pro spirts is changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born. Those who fail to embrace it will fade like the British Empire. Those who accept it will lead the way in the future.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available on brucedowbigginbooks.ca