STEIN: I have to throw my racket in here and make sure I have paid homage to my top three, because I love tennis with equal gusto, but it does indeed sound as if we have lots in common. Thanks for a question you probably figured I couldn’t resist.
That said, given the frenetic manner in which star players have moved over the past three off-seasons, I don’t think the N.B.A. needs to borrow anything from any other league on the planet. #Thisleague boasts the hottest stove in sports, and I don’t see it changing for the three reasons I laid out it in this June piece I wrote for The Times’ Insider heading into the N.B.A. finals:
1. Basketball fans get to see almost everything in the social media era, which makes them thirst with increasing intensity for what goes unseen: moves their teams are plotting.
2. Also thanks to social media, we as a basketball public have been taken deeper into players’ lives, for better or worse, than any other major sport allows. The result: Fans (and media members) are invested in these “characters” and their back stories, travails and occasional feuds and flare-ups more than they have ever been. These passions are more club-based than player-based in English soccer.
3. In no other team sport can the addition of one superstar so drastically change a team’s outlook — for the simple reason that basketball is a five-on-five game.
The N.B.A. system, as a bonus, also happens to be far more democratic than international soccer’s because of the salary cap and the many trade regulations involved in establishing that trades are cap-legal. A salary cap that could work across all soccer leagues worldwide is obviously an impossible dream, but that means the richest clubs are bound to rule the transfer market forever.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The frantic nature of Transfer Deadline Day in England is certainly irresistible. That’s largely thanks to the suffocating coverage from Sky Sports News, which I must say ranks as my cofavorite sports channel (alongside Tennis Channel) since we’ve decided to get so personal here.
But I would argue that the stuff to truly envy that England has and we don’t is all tied to promotion and relegation rather than player movement. And that’s a model that just can’t be copied here no matter how often it gets thrown out as a fun hypothetical.
England has 92 professional soccer clubs across four league divisions all owned by separate entities. It’s a l-o-n-g and established ladder for teams to move up and down. I’m not sure we’ll ever even see promotion and relegation in American soccer, because Major League Soccer’s current owners are so determined to resist it by any means necessary to protect their ever-rising investments and maintain as much revenue certainty as they can.
We have so many regular-season games that are meaningless, in all of North America’s major team sports, because league status is never threatened. It would be endlessly fascinating if, say, the Knicks couldn’t miss the playoffs for six seasons in a row without some greater consequence.
Perhaps the threat of relegation is the mystical force that could finally make Jim Dolan cede control of the team to someone who would run the Knicks in a more sensible and appealing fashion.