David Stern has been pushing a new restriction that would effectively kill the American Olympic basketball we've all held so dear since the fabled Dream Team. The idea is to restrict players to a 23-and-under age limit, thus keeping most superstars out of the competition, and shifting the focus on the FIBA World Championships, a tourney the NBA could conceivably make money from.
Some have praised the idea, in part because Team USA has been rolling foes of late. While there might be merit to scrapping the current system, we should examine the deeper issues at play.
For instance, have you ever wondered why there's so much attention bestowed on say, Michael Phelps, and so little attention on America's basketball team? The opening USA basketball game was against France, and it was broadcast on NBC's cable sports channel (not their main, network channel) at 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast. When the peacock network wants to hype an Olympic event, it will often hold it on tape delay until primetime. In an ironic way, American basketball fans are blessed to see hoops live, just because NBC has such little regard for the sport.
You could posit that this happens because the Americans are so overwhelmingly favored at hoops. But since when has U.S. dominance caused NBC to cover an event less? I'm citing the aforementioned Phelps and his 2008 coverage as a rebuttal here.
The dominant 1992 Dream Team truly was a once in a generation event, but the team's fame was further augmented by NBC's interest in hyping it. At the time, NBC held NBA TV rights and the Olympics doubled as a promotion for their prized, year-round sports property.
This is not the case nowadays, as ABC/ESPN and TNT hold rights to nationally televised pro basketball. There is no cross promotional opportunity for NBC and you could even argue that the folks at 30 Rockefeller Plaza suffer for the NBA's increased popularity. NBC carries the NHL, which runs concurrent to the NBA season and playoffs. The more excited people are about LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the less they'll be inclined to flip over for Penguins-Flyers.
NBC owns Olympic rights through 2020, which means a) Perhaps we should get used to tape delays and b) The NBA lacks control over how Olympic basketball gets advertised for a good long time. While there is no NBA money to be made on Olympic hoops, the Commissioner would be more inclined to deal with its presence if ABC/ESPN televised the games.
In this hypothetical scenario, ABC would be trumpeting the LeBron-led 2012 crew and constantly reminding us of game times. That coverage would be further echoed on SportsCenter (an ABC/ESPN product, obviously), where much Olympic analysis would double as basketball team analysis. In short, the 2012 games would be one giant, honking advertisement for the 2012 NBA. Not a bad deal for the Commish.
I would bet that, if NBC by some miracle outbids ABC/ESPN for the next round of NBA TV rights, Stern will drop this 23-and-under idea faster than a levied trade veto. The current NBA TV rights contract ends in 2016, right before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The negotiations for that deal will likely conclude years before the current deal is up. If NBC gets the TV rights, would they also want the ability to broadcast an Olympic team full of basketball superstars, aged over 23 years and otherwise? I would think so.
Television rights are an important factor in many sports stories, yet they are rarely mentioned by the principles. NBC's Olympic affiliation is not immaterial to what the NBA wants from the Olympics.