Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Can Europe afford the NBA's biggest stars?

By Ian Whittell
Special to ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James
They looked good in international play. Would Kobe Bryant or LeBron James ever bolt for Europe?

As soon as American basketball fans had come to terms with the loss of the likes of Josh Childress, Carlos Delfino and Earl Boykins to Europe this summer, we started hearing about the unthinkable.

LeBron James suiting up for Olympiacos of Greece in 2010? Kobe Bryant becoming player-owner of a team in Italy? Teammates on the U.S. Olympic squad heading to Russia?

Interviews with some of the league's elite players certainly suggested that this summer's trickle of talent to Europe could become a full-blown torrent over the coming years, with annual salaries of $50 million a year tax-free being thrown around.

Just one small problem.

Nobody in Europe -- where execs, agents, fans and media are still trying to get their heads around the $20 million, three-year deal Childress inked with Olympiacos -- is close to offering that kind of contract.

Yet.

"I think that we have to be realistic," Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu told ESPN.com in his first public comments since the Childress signing. "I don't like to dream where there is no room for dreaming and, of course, there could be some kind of exception in the future.

"But we cannot say that the European market, at the level we are at right now, is ready to afford this kind of challenge. The fact that one specific owner can take a very exceptional decision and present this kind of offer [to Childress] does not represent the level of our league. [Bryant or James] would be out of our expectation. It's easy to dream, it's nice and it's cheap but it is not realistic.

"If we are ready, at some point, to offer these amounts of money to the best players in the world then I will be the happiest man in the world, but for me, it is much more important to continue growing with stability and a solid base."

Quite correctly, Bertomeu leaves himself a get-out clause. After all, when the NBA first opened "diplomatic relations" with the world basketball community, via the Dream Team and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, did anyone imagine the day would come when a dozen players would voluntarily turn their backs on the NBA in a single summer to play in Europe?

But here are the key issues to weigh when considering whether Euro teams will be in a position to compete for the likes of Bryant next summer or a 2010 free-agent class that features LeBron, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Yao Ming, Chris Bosh and the Phoenix Suns trio of Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire.

1. DO THE MATH

As every NBA fan -- not to mention every player -- is now well aware, salaries quoted in Europe are "net," the figure left in a player's pocket after he has paid tax.

If, as people close to James have been claiming, an annual wage of $50 million would tempt the Cleveland Cavalier to move to Europe when he becomes a free agent in 2010, that would require Olympiacos to pay him around $80 million gross (i.e., before tax) -- assuming the $50 million is a net figure.

That is a colossal amount of money, even for billionaire shipping owners such as Panagiotis and George Angelopoulos, the brothers who own 50 percent of Olympiacos and are bank-rolling the Childress deal.

(As a comparison, Europe's elite handful of soccer players in England and Italy can expect contracts of around $15 million net per year from their teams.)

"It is a huge amount of money," said Bertomeu of the Childress contract. "But in the past few years we've had some offers that have been not of this level, but close to this level.

"For me, the problem would be if European teams go to a level of salaries that we can't fulfill. That would be a problem. We've been fortunate, we have never had problems with paying players. That would be one of the worst possible things."

Nevertheless, European teams have come so far so quickly in terms of salary spending power that nobody dares dismiss the idea of a major star's signing completely out of hand.

The world economic picture is changing so rapidly -- and the world basketball landscape even more so -- that leading European clubs currently believe any NBA player is available, at the right price.

2. BUDGETS

Toronto Raptors assistant GM Maurizio Gherardini told us, at the start of the month, he believes a maximum of three or four European clubs could contemplate offering a deal in the Childress range.

How many could afford to pay James or Bryant? Fewer still. Although …

"This is what is different for American people to understand," Gherardini said. "The difference in the system, the difference in running the business. Over here [in Europe], the owner falls in love with his own team, he is entitled to do whatever he wants, pour as much money as he wants into the team. There is no cap, no salary limit.

"It's very difficult for American people to understand that you can go out and try to sign a player you fall in love with. In the NBA, we talk about restrictions, brought in by the salary cap and rules, but here the owner dictates the philosophy of his club."

Thus, if the "philosophy" of the Angelopoulos brothers is to hand LeBron $80 million for eight months of work, they are well within their rights to do so. But how much of a quantum leap would that represent?

Budgets in the Euroleague last season ranged from $50 million (champions CSKA Moscow) to $3.12 million (Red Star Belgrade) with only six clubs operating at over the $30 million mark.

And those figures are for total budgetary expenditure -- not just players' salaries. Olympiacos spent $35.8 million in 2007-08, indicating how much of a jump the near $11 million (pre-tax) the team will pay Childress this year represents.

Is it reasonable to believe a team would pay James $80 million when the entire budget of the biggest spenders in Euroleague was $50 million last year? It is highly unlikely, but not impossible.

The Bryant scenario might be slightly different. It has been mentioned that the L.A. Laker would welcome the possibility of becoming an owner -- or player-owner -- in Italy, where he spent a large part of his childhood.

He very well might like the idea, but last time we checked, becoming an owner usually involves spending money, not just receiving it. Even if an existing owner were to gift Kobe a large chunk of his club in return for playing, the current business model does not exist for Bryant to make any serious money.

Indeed, although figures are not declared publicly, it is believed that none of Europe's leading teams makes a profit.

On the one hand, that means an owner might be more likely to invest a chunk of his personal fortune in a coup like signing James or Bryant.

But it also means that if Bryant wants to own an Italian team, he better not expect to make any money from it.

A situation that may make more sense for Bryant, not to mention older veteran superstars like Nash or Jason Kidd, would be to wait until the final year or two of their pro careers and then seek a final payday in Europe, where the schedule is more forgiving and the standard of play, generally, less demanding than in the NBA.

In that light, as long as the player's Q rating is sufficient to offer value to team owners and sponsors, such a signing may represent better business than busting the bank to sign LeBron in his prime.

In U.S. dollars, here are the unofficial estimates of the total budgets for the 2007-08 season for various teams across Europe, according to the Greek basketball Web site Super Basket:

(* - denotes Euroleague team)

BALTICADRIATIC
Zalgiris Kaunas*: 7MMontepaschi Siena*: 17.16M
Lietuvos Rytas*: 11MVirtus Bologna*: 14M
Turof (Polish team): 5.46MLyon Villeurbanne: 7.5M
Alba Berlin: 9.36MCibona Zagreb*: 4.68M
Dynamo Kiev: 11MOlimpia*: 3.12M
SPAINRUSSIA
Real Madrid*: 39MCSKA Moscow*: 50M
FC AXA Barcelona*: 34.32MKhimki: 18M
Tau Vitoria*: 31.2MDynamo Moscow: 20M
Badalona: 12.48MUnix (Russian): 14M
Unicaja Malaga*: 28.08MDynamo Moscow region: 14M
BALKANSASIA
Panathinaikos Athens*: 42.12MMaccabi Tel Aviv*: 16M
Olympiacos Piraeus*: 35.88MHapoel Jerusalem: 5M
Aris TT Bank*: 12.48MEfes Pilsen*: 12M
Partizan Belgrade*: 4.68MFenerbahce Istanbul*: 11M
Red Star Belgrade*: 3.12MBesictas Istanbul: 6M

3. DON'T BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

A number of American observers have cited David Beckham's signing with the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS as an example of how a European club could land a LeBron or Kobe.

If the Galaxy can pay Becks a reported $250 million over five years, goes the logic, then an established European power like Olympiacos could easily gamble on paying $80 million for one season ($50 million net).

But the Galaxy are actually paying the Englishman only $6.5 million this season. The "missing" $43.5 million comes from the large endorsement portfolio Beckham and his wife Victoria already had in place when they left Europe.

Beckham's representatives encouraged media on both sides of the Atlantic to use the $250 million figure in an attempt to gain pub and justify a move that, purely in soccer terms, made no sense.

Beckham's sponsors and endorsers are happy, because having him based in L.A. rather than Spain, where he played for Real Madrid, assures him and their products of more exposure.

If Olympiacos, for example, could convince major global companies to contribute toward James' salary, the deal might become affordable.

And as you may have noticed from seeing photographs of European clubs, teams are allowed to wear advertising on their uniforms.

James might end up looking like a NASCAR driver, but the chance of having the world's most famous young basketball player wearing their logos around Europe for a year could be a tempting proposition for sponsors.

4. GREECE IS NOT THE WORD

Greece remains one of the world's great vacation destinations, but what it is not is an economic power.

The International Monetary Fund ranked Greece 28th last year in its list of nations by Gross Domestic Product. That may not mean a lot to you or me, but economists use that figure to assess a country's standard of living, and Greece trails well behind most of Western Europe, North America, Japan and some of the oil-rich Middle East.

What it means, in short, is no corporate sponsorship and no corporate dollars.

There is a reason the NBA has not visited Greece during its NBA Europe Live series and there is a reason Athens is rarely mentioned as a possible location for a team if David Stern ever expands the league with Euro franchises.

Yes, the Greek economy is strengthening greatly because of funding from the European Union and investment that surrounded the 2004 Athens Olympics.

But if some of LeBron's key partners want to help Olympiacos fund a deal in a "Beckham style" arrangement, the idea is a tough sell. There is not enough disposable income in Greece to justify such a deal for a shoe company, drink manufacturer or burger chain.

To underline that point, average attendance in Greece's top division last year was 1,200. Of course, the presence of a blue-chip NBA superstar would see attendance soar, but many teams in domestic leagues (rather than the Euroleague) play in gyms that hold only 2,000-3,000 people.

In fact, many U.S. basketball fans may be surprised at the modest size of European attendances, although they generally make up in enthusiasm and passion what they lack in size.

Only three Euroleague teams averaged five figures in attendance last season (Maccabi Tel Aviv, 11,000; Panathinaikos of Greece, 10,357; and Leituvos Rytas of Lithuania, 10,296), while Olympiacos averaged a modest 6,071 for games in Europe, just over half capacity.

Obviously, the signing of James would increase crowd size at home and on the road. And the Euroleague's current boom is such that Bertomeu has had conversations with eight different clubs this summer about their plans to build new arenas.

But even these new arenas will be smaller than their NBA equivalents, and crucially, average ticket prices, particularly in southern Europe, are much lower than in the NBA. An increased attendance, on its own, will not be enough to finance the signing of a Bryant or James.

Ironically -- and sadly for NBA marquee names in search of this kind of contract -- the list of Euro countries with strong enough economies to support this economic model is headed by Germany, France and the United Kingdom, none of which is considered a strong basketball market.

"I don't think there is a market to support this kind of deal in Europe," said one sportswear company executive. "Now, if LeBron could go and play in China for a year, that would be totally different.

"The only up and coming market in Europe where it might make sense for companies to bankroll a deal could be Russia."

5. TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE?

Euroleague sources expect that the only market that will sustain this summer's big-money contracts is Russia, because of deep-pocketed owners who are desperate for their clubs to succeed.

Dynamo Moscow and Khimki are not even in the 2008-09 Euroleague, but have invested heavily in players, a direct result of the league's decision to grant 16 permanent licenses to play in its 24-team field in 2009-10.

Yet, if Russia's booming economy makes the country the most attractive destination for NBA players, the uncertain political situation in the region raises a whole range of other, far more serious issues.

Four years ago, a number of high-profile NBA players pulled out of the Athens Olympics citing "security" issues.

After Russia's recent invasion of Georgia has created tensions in the international community, would Moscow really look like an attractive proposition to some of the United States' most high-profile sportsmen?

6. AGENTS TALK

Try this test. Ask your work colleagues or family a simple question: Would you live overseas for a year if you could multiply your salary five-fold and do a job that is slightly easier than the one you are doing now?

Did most people answer yes?

Unfortunately, for European hoops fans expecting LeBron to wash up on their shores two years from now, that is the depth of the questioning that has sparked this latest round of Euro hysteria.

The only way in which the latest comments from James, Bryant and others become a serious issue for the NBA is if there is actually a concrete offer out there to tempt that level of superstar.

And for now at least, that offer simply does not exist.

Not that the issue will disappear off the radar, of course. Given the strict structure of the NBA salary cap, agents and certain key players will continue to talk up the topic in the hope they can somehow pressure the league to either do away with the cap or, at least, create one in which one star player is exempt (similar to the "Beckham rule" adopted by MLS).

What the latest development will also bring with it, incidentally, is increased speculation and rumors about NBA players moving to Europe.

If an agent or player wants to put bargaining pressure on the NBA team with which he's negotiating, all he has to do is talk up the interest he is receiving from Europe, whether it really exists or not.

For example, Ben Gordon recently announced that he will decline the offer of a one-year tender from the Chicago Bulls and will, therefore, seek a sign-and-trade deal with another NBA team or look for a job in Europe, where, incidentally, his value rises considerably because his British passport means he does not count against a team's import quota.

However, whether or not a job in Europe is attainable for the Bulls guard remains to be seen. As in so many other cases this summer, Gordon's threat to move to Europe becomes relevant only when there is an offer on the table.

Pick up a popular newspaper in a soccer-mad country such as Spain, Germany or England, and the sports pages and columns will be dominated by speculation, rumor and gossip about trades -- sometimes accurate, sometimes not. In most cases, it suits the European team to be linked with an NBA player because it shows its supporters how ambitious and wealthy it is.

But we can never say never. Many observers -- myself included -- believed that Olympiacos' courtship of Childress was done purely as a public relations stunt, to give supporters something to shout about in their heated rivalry with Panathinaikos.

And look how that turned out.

Ian Whittell covers basketball for The Times of London.