David Stern went on the radio Thursday and said the NBA will have “multiple NBA international teams” in Europe within 20 years, which is cool. We cannot wait to see the New Orleans Pelicans take on the London Warm Beers in 2028.
Without thinking about it too hard, though, it is easy to come up with any number of reasons such expansion would be problematic. The inimitable Ball Don’t Lie noted that travel would not be as onerous as it may seem — a quick search of online flights reveals it takes less than 11 hours to get from Los Angeles to London, for example — but time in the air aboard a plush charter plane might be the least of the NBA’s worries if it tried to extend its reach beyond the two countries it currently inhabits. (Admit it — you forgot for a minute that there is an NBA franchise in Canada.)
Again, without thinking about it very hard, here is a list of issues we can come up with, while sitting at the TD Garden waiting for the Celtics to take on the Pacers, that the NBA would face in the event of European expansion.
Tax rates. A decade ago, the Raptors had trouble signing free agents due to a negative exchange rate with the U.S. dollar and a higher tax rate for high-salary earners. Since then, the Canadian dollar has become stronger relative to the U.S. dollar, and the tax rate has been reformed to put the Raptors into a more favorable position. Now the Raptors’ struggles to attract free agents have more to do with players’ attitudes than with an inherent financial disadvantage. But certain taxes on the affluent are known to be much higher in many European nations than in the U.S. Maybe there is some loophole that would keep an NBA player from giving up 60 percent of his salary in income tax to the British government, but that would have to be a pretty big loophole.
Racism. Instances of foreign players getting heckled, or worse, in a way that crosses the line at professional soccer games are so common that only the truly heinous ones even get reported anymore. Just a couple of months ago, Britain’s government was enraged when Serbian fans barked monkey noises at their black players. Imagine the brouhaha that could erupt by bringing a team predominantly made up of African-Americans into that sort of environment. Better yet, don’t.
Football. No, not the American kind of football, which has tried to play across the pond with mixed success. This is the other type of football, otherwise known as futbol, fussball or soccer. You know, the most popular sport in the world. Soccer aficionados have tried to get their beautiful game to catch on in the states, and their efforts are only now starting to work, sort of, in very specific markets. Olimpia Milano fans in Italy might not have a hard time learning to love the NBA, but how receptive would London or Berlin audiences be to embracing their new home team? (And, really, the NBA would have to target major markets like those, rather than hoops-ready locations like Israel, because otherwise, what is the point of international expansion if it does not capture the biggest cities?)
Talent drain. The NBA, like every major American professional league, houses some players who by all rights do not deserve to be there. Every additional franchise would add 15 roster spots to the pot, creating even more jobs for unworthy players. Good backups become mediocre starters. Third-stringers become bad reserves. Guys who now toil in the D-League end up filling out the bench. Not surprisingly, the quality of play plummets overnight, then gradually improves over time — although it never reaches the level it achieved previously.
Perhaps Stern, who presumably has thought a lot longer and a lot harder over this than we have, has solutions to all these issues. His expansion plan might include reforming the European tax code, wiping out racism on a global scale, teaching footie fans to love a different type of roundball and custom-breeding elite athletes.
Of course, Stern does not have to worry about any of this. He is stepping down as commissioner in 2014, so when he promises NBA teams in Europe within 20 years, he is writing checks Adam Silver is going to have to cash. At the very least, we wish Silver luck in ending racism. That would be pretty neat.