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How to end the flood of NBA teens
Too many young pros worries everyone, but age limits won't work as well as changes in rookie pay.
April 29, 2005: 12:53 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If you want to stem the flood of high school players and underclassmen into the National Basketball Association, a good place to start is with the salary restrictions placed on rookie contracts.

The flood of young players is bad for everyone -- the players, the league and the college game. If the NBA owners and the players union really want to address the issue, they'll negotiate some kind of change in those salary limits on a player's early career, rather than trying to impose an NFL-like age limits on who is eligible for the draft.

The issue has prompted a conference at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School Friday. Sports executives and academics will discuss the effects, causes and possible solutions to the current status quo.

It is also widely expected to be a subject of negotiations for a new contract now underway between the NBA and the players union.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the flood of young players makes perfect economic sense for both the players and the teams, according to Dan Rosenbaum, an economics professor at University of North Carolina Greensboro who spoke at the Wharton conference.

Rosenbaum said that players hear from agents or others that the only way to make big money is get done with the mandatory rookie contract at as young an age as possible.

"In the last two collective bargaining agreements, the NBA has dramatically increased the cost of staying in school, by as much as $15 million a year for some players," Rosenbaum wrote in an academic paper examining the issue.

Of course, the players whose careers fizzle after coming out too early lose far more than they gain by entering the NBA. They believe they can be the sport's next big superstar, like LeBron James.

But LeBron is an extreme rarity. Disappointment is far more common than success when a player jumps from high school or a year of college to the NBA.

Rosenbaum and attorney and basketball analyst Len Elmore agree that many of the players aren't likely to listen to advice to bide their time and develop their game in college.

"They only hear what they want to hear," said Elmore, another speaker at the Wharton conference. "They'll ignore 50 people who tell them it's not their time to find the one person who says it is."

Teams also have incentive to draft young

If the NBA teams stuck with the more developed and mature players with four years of college ball on their resume, the issue would solve itself. But Rosenbaum said the labor contract is pushing teams to take a chance on the high school players and underclassmen.

The rookie salary contract means the younger player who develops into a true star is going to be paid under his market value longer -- and give the team more flexibility under the salary cap -- than a comparable older player.

"It encourages teams to take a gamble to try to find players who might become superstars," said Rosenbaum. "The way to make money is to have a player worth $20 million to the franchise who you can only pay $7 million under the contract."

The rookie salary structure limits the downside to the team of drafting based on potential, instead of proven ability.

Giving players who stay in college a shorter time under the salary restrictions, and giving them a higher starting salary, would provide powerful market incentives to stemming the flow.

Scott Rosner, a legal studies lecturer at Wharton and director of the school's Sports Business Initiative, thinks the league is more likely to try a straight age limit than any market-based solution. He said the owners believe that's the best way to limit salaries down the road.

"If you're the NBA, you want to curb the number of unrestricted free agent contracts a player can get in his career," he said. "If you can limit it to one rather than two, that would be better."

Rosner and Elmore also believe there will be exceptions to the age rules, such as allowing first-round draft picks to be underage. The league doesn't want to miss out on the next LeBron, after all.

The NBA may think it's saving money by keeping the salary restrictions in place. But it could be false savings, paid for by the diminished fan appeal of anonymous rookies just out of high school, instead of well-known college upperclassmen getting fans excited by their leap to the next level.

Better players and a better quality of play in each year's rookie class are what will galvanize fans.  Top of page


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