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Monday, May 19, 2008

Mike DeCourcy - Making the case for a NBA draft age of 20

Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Making the case for a NBA draft age of 20
Posted: May 19, 2008

When the folks at Harris Interactive recently released their annual survey of America's most popular sports, basketball got slammed. Once ahead of baseball in the race to be a distant second to this nation's football obsession, the ratings for hoops have slipped to Beauty and the Geek territory.

I did my own little survey, less scientific, when speaking at Wright State's tipoff luncheon last November. To get an idea of how the NBA is viewed by typical college fans, I asked audience members to raise their hands if they had a negative view of the NBA. You'd have thought I had just offered them 23-cent pizzas.

Basketball is a great game, but the sport is fractured. We again were reminded of that when ESPN's Outside the Lines reported USC star O.J. Mayo was paid thousands of dollars by an agent's "runner" while Mayo played high school ball and one season with the Trojans.

Would an increase in the NBA's draft age minimum to 20 fix everything?

Goodness, no.

There's one reason I'm certain it's a good move, though: Many agents think it's a bad one.

Those who fought against NBA commissioner David Stern's original proposal for a 20-year age minimum -- and helped get it cut in contract negotiations to the current 19 -- largely did so because it's easier to bamboozle high school kids. Agents are attaching themselves to younger players and do not want extended college careers to delay their payoffs. They might masquerade behind a concern about the rights of athletes to earn a living, but it's mostly about their own net worths.

For too long, there has been no attention paid to basketball's bottom line. In 1994, before the NBA's introduction of a rookie salary scale essentially invited high school players into the draft, 19 percent of Americans identified basketball -- college (8 percent) or pro (11) -- as their favorite sport. Now it's down to 8 percent, split evenly between the two. David Falk, who gained fame as Michael Jordan's agent, believes the players association should recognize how the decline in popularity affects them and support increasing the age minimum.

"The lack of connection with these superstars really hurts the business of sport," Falk told the SportBusiness Journal's Liz Mullen. Later, he added, "The point is all the players are making less money if the product is inferior."

Stern is not blameless in the decline, but he deserves credit for trying to reverse it. At the Final Four, the NBA and NCAA announced a partnership designed to address concerns at the game's grass-roots level. An enhanced age minimum is not explicitly part of that initiative, but it would benefit the sport by delivering better trained and better known players to the league.

Mike DeCourcy is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at

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