When I explain to people what I’m studying at college, it’s never an easy answer. Telling them that I go New York University is the obvious first step, but when I tell that to someone, their first thought is almost always the image of a dirty hipster, prowling the depths of the LES, Williamsburg, or some obscure place that’s not cool yet but will be in a few months, rather than an institution of higher learning. I’m not a film major at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, and I’m not a future millionaire at the internationally renowned Stern Business School. No, I study Sport Management at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Within that school exists my program: The Robert Preston Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, Sport Management,
and Horseback Riding. I call it the “fake Tisch” or just SCPS. Curious looks always follow-up my ramble.
After explaining what school I’m in at NYU, which takes three more sentences than it should, I’ll always immediately jump out and explain what a “Sport Management” major is—I’m not going to school to be a baseball coach or an equipment jockey. On the first day of class freshman year, my “Introduction to Sport Management” instructor laid it out pretty well. I’m in a program that’s rooted in the same business principles and practices that a Stern business student would learn, but taught with an angle slighted towards the sports industry. I learn accounting, marketing, consumer behavior, business development, law—the whole nine yards—except every example given to teach me these subjects has to do with sports. It’s much easier to learn accounting when the finances of the Yankees or MSG are on the table. Last semester, I actually had fun writing a 12 page paper on organizational structures, because it was on how Liverpool FC stacks up.
From the first minute of class, we’re instantly taught to stop thinking like a fan, and to think like a savvy industry insider. Yet what really makes the material to much fun to absorb is that little fan switch in the back of my mind—it’s never fully in the off position. At heart, I’m a fan of the sports, leagues, teams, and companies discussed in class. Would you rather study the accounting statement of Fortune 500 Company X, or the team you just spent three hours yelling at through your television last Sunday? The skills I’m picking up in my major is allowing me to analyze my favorite teams at a higher level. I’m actually becoming a better fan—there’s no inverse relationship between my business knowledge and my personal fandom of the sports industry.
At SCPS, I’ve been blessed with a truly outstanding faculty. Most, if not all of my Sport Management professors have other gigs outside of the classroom. They’re still working jobs within the industry, mostly in some sort of counseling or writing capacity. Occasionally, examples brought up in class will directly follow a sporting trend that’s worth noting. I’ll be using this column to explain them as best as my notes dictate, and with added analysis from my own perspective.
The first grand idea comes from Professor David Hollander’s Marketing of Sports and Events class. He was giving a lecture on the pillars of marketing, and how businesses should think about themselves. He brought up the railroad industry as a prime example of how businesses fail to evaluate themselves properly. Back in the late 20th and early 21st century, if railroad companies thought about themselves as being in the travel business, and not the railroad business, they would’ve had a chance to adapt to the airplane and car, the two dominant forms of transportation today. When companies ask themselves “What business am I in?” the answer should always be based on the wants and needs of the consumer, and not one specific product.
A more modern example would be book companies. Book publishers don’t think of themselves as being in the book (you know, that physical stack of paper bound together) business, but in the literature business. People want to read, and it’s the job of every publisher to get people to read their products—whether it’s an e-book, audiobook, or a physical book—publishers should be taking the steps to make their products as widely available to consumers as possible.
Since this is a Sport Management class, an example relating to the industry was brought up. Nike has just signed on with FIBA as a presenting sponsor of FIBA’s new international three-on-three basketball tournament. FIBA is trying to get three-on-three basketball into the Olympics as soon as 2016. This leaves the NBA in a predicament. The NBA and FIBA are both in the basketball business, with the NBA promoting organized five-on-five basketball, and FIBA pushing everything that’s basketball in the world. Basketball is already the second most commercially popular sport in the world, and three-on-three basketball is rapidly on the rise in Europe and China. FIBA has had three-on-three world championships before, and FIBA General Secretary Patrick Baumann claims that three-on-three tournaments happen nearly every week in China—a claim that my roommate, a Chinese graduate student who’s in the United States for the first time, backs up. (He owns six Kobe Bryant jerseys and is an avid three-on-three player back home.) The NBA has no competing international product, other than the reach of their own league.
If David Stern and the NBA truly think of themselves as a global purveyor of basketball, they’d be falling behind the eight-ball if they let FIBA, and the new American Basketball League, start dictating the direction of the sport. The newly formed ABL is launching this January, and they plan to use FIBA rules, which means a different ball, shorter 3-point line, and an overall more offense game than what the NBA allows (basically what you saw in the 2012 Olympics). The ABL’s plan is to serve as a feeder league for European leagues, so American players who aren’t NBA quality can hone the international style to seek professional employment in Europe.
Between FIBA’s reach in the ABL, their plans for three-on-three, the NBA’s idea to have an age limit on Olympic players and to potentially create a “World Cup of Basketball,” something’s got to give. If the NBA doesn’t put it’s biggest stars on display in the Olympics, does it cost itself international expansion opportunities? Without a doubt. They’d be harming the five-on-five product internationally, which could help promote an Olympic three-on-three tournament by default. If three-on-three catches on, and NBA quality players compete in a more exciting three-on-three tournament in the Olympics, the NBA will be under threat.
FIBA and the NBA are at war for the future of global basketball. FIBA now offers Olympic basketball, an American league, and three-on-three. There are more NBA fans in China than people in the United States, but if those fans are playing three-on-three more and more, it would only take one three-on-three star to have the sport explode. If the NBA thinks of themselves as being in the business of organized basketball, no matter how many players are on the court, they should be able to deal with FIBA’s threats. Perhaps an NBA sanctioned three-on-three league in Europe or China should be in the cards? If they fail to get a foothold on the burgeoning three-on-three market, they will lose significant amounts of basketball market share oversees.
On the flip side of this war are the apparel companies. Adidas is currently signed on as the NBA’s official sponsor. Since Nike is locked out of that market, they’ve decided to sponsor three-on-three basketball, as well as Spain’s professional league. Nike already has Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant under their marionette strings. By running to get their products in the hands of international players first, they’re ahead of the curve. Nike is eating on two fronts: they’ve got the five most popular players in the world in their shoes, and they’ve got thousands of international athletes in their uniforms. Adidas may have NBA players outfitted in their uniforms, but Nike seems determined to get the other billion basketball players around the world into their shirts, sweats, and shoes. As usual, Nike is holding the keys to the future. It would horrify David Stern into retirement if Chinese kids started wearing the Nike jersey of some Spanish three-on-three star instead of LeBron’s Adidas sponsored Miami Heat jersey.
Five-on-five basketball is deeply rooted within American sporting culture—there will never be an American three-on-three league as big as the NBA. But whoever said basketball was just an American sport? Nike and FIBA are banking on the rest of the world’s players carrying a different brand of basketball. It’s vital that the NBA thinks more like HarperCollins, and not like Union Pacific Railroad.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49