Were Kobe and LeBron Right?

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James recently voiced their concerns regarding how the game of basketball is taught in the US. The concerns are founded, but the solutions aren’t. In case you missed it, Kobe proposed that we should stop treating young players like “cash cows”, like in Europe.

In reality, young players in Europe are even bigger cows than in the US, but there are fewer milkers. As opposed to AAU, the only ones making money from European athletes are the clubs themselves. In order to fully understand this, we need to take a look at the two significantly different structures:

The European system is really simple and is the same across all sports. You have professional clubs which sell tickets, merchandise, and their players when needed. Each one of those clubs also has a youth department which is there to develop players who, one day, will be utilized by the professional team. Once an able player reaches the age of 18, the club can decided whether they want to keep the player or sell the player (there’s a middle scenario of loaning, but let’s not complicate things). Essentially, a youth player is owned by their club. If they want to leave after a certain period of time, they need to be purchased.

This system works because both the player and the club have the same goal in mind — making the player the best they can be so they’ll be worth as much as possible. So the notion that European clubs don’t see players as cash cows isn’t very accurate, but that’s not necessarily bad.

The American system revolves around AAU and High School basketball. So right off the bat, we see a big difference. A kid has at least two different coaches every year. That’s two different playing styles, two different opinions, and two different development strategies.

There’s greater pressure to win games and less focus on the valuable learning opportunities games provide.

Now let’s talk about success metrics in the US. There’s greater pressure to win games and less focus on the valuable learning opportunities games provide. This is also not all bad because we often see American athletes compete with more dedication and ambition to win which is noticeable at the higher levels.

The second success metric is an athletic scholarship. Here, we also see a mutual interest of player and coach. Who doesn’t want their college tuition taken care of and the ability to play on the highest level. Heck, some players might not even have been accepted to their chosen institutions if not for their game. Their coaches’ interest are in the same place because what better way to market yourself than to increase chances of receiving this coveted ticket to education.

If we’re looking at the differences between the two models, we see that High Schools and AAU clubs don’t make a direct revenue from the athletic quality of their kids. Imagine if an AAU club would receive 2% of the salary of every NBA player they produce. I bet there would be less of a focus on winning, and more of a focus on taking every game as a learning opportunity. AAU clubs would be less revolved around showcases and sponsorships because they would have the money anyway. And most importantly, coaches would have to sit together and plan out development strategies for their players.

Photography by: Keith Allison — image

Originally published at blog.varsaty.com on January 28, 2015.

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