The NCAA’s Dominance Is Weakening. Enter the G League

Left to Right; Jawun Evans, Andre Ingram, Yuta Watanabe, and Tyler Ulis.

Source Composite, Sean Culligan/OZY; Image, Getty

Why you should care

Because the NCAA hasn’t faced a challenge this big in 30 years. 

Andre Ingram had spent a decade in the G League before finally getting a two-game shot with the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of the 2017–18 season. He shone. Ingram went 6 for 8 from the field, four of those shots being 3-pointers he sunk with quick-trigger aplomb. Not only was it the kind of performance that typified how he had earned a spot on an NBA roster, but it was the kind of performance that made you wonder where a player like this had been.

The G League — the NBA’s developmental league — was formed in 2001 to act as a minor league farm system for the NBA. For the first time since its inception, the G League is set to offer new “select contracts” for those players looking to make the jump into the NBA who haven’t yet spent a year outside of high school — a current NBA requirement that could be changed by 2022. Select players will receive roughly $135,000 per year in the G League instead of the current average salary for G League players, which is $44,000.

In North American sports, baseball has the most robust minor league system, with multiple tiers. Those in Triple-A, who are most likely to get called up into Major League Baseball, earn about $10,000 a month. Unlike the NBA, MLB recruits prospects right out of high school, allowing them to bypass the NCAA system altogether. The NHL sees a higher percentage of its talent come from the NCAA — 30 percent — while American football, which is only now starting to explore development leagues, drafts nearly all of its players from the NCAA.

It’s clear that the G League is positioning itself to serve as an attractive alternative to college for such players. And, as it turns out, it might be a more reliable path to the NBA. 

The proportion of G League players who make it to the NBA has more than doubled since 2010. It’s now at 20 percent — far higher than the proportion of NCAA players who get there.

Consider this: Only 1.2 percent of 18,712 NCAA basketball players get called up to the NBA. And college basketball players can’t profit off their own likenesses, despite the fact that those same likenesses generate millions of dollars in revenue every year for their programs. 

This fact has led to an antitrust lawsuit in California, Alston v. NCAA. In it, plaintiffs allege that artificially capping the scholarships that can be offered to players prevents colleges from economically competing with one another to acquire talented young athletes. 

If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it could in effect turn the NCAA into a minor league system rather than a collection of amateur student-athletes. Even so, says Kevin Brown of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, if the injunction is granted to create a free market for college players’ services, it likely won’t “substantively change the concern about exploitation and potentially racial exploitation in the current amateur athletic model.”

 

So where does this case leave the G League’s select contracts?

“The fact that the G League is going to offer $135,000 doesn’t really affect the trust issues the California judge is going to decide,” says Matthew Mitten, a professor of law and executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. He notes that the NCAA pretty clearly has what’s known as monopsony power — instead of multiple buyers in a market, there is only one buyer —  and it’s “a primary source of demand of playing services of top high school basketball players.” 

So if the select contract is too small a force to pressure a school to change its ways, is it instead a leading indicator of how the sports landscape could begin to change if it were ruled that college athletes should be paid?

“Before the NBA adopted its age requirements,” says Brown, “you did have effectively an open marketplace for kids to come directly from high school — and it didn’t have an impact on the financial bottom line of college ball.” But in today’s “one and done” NBA system, where players must spend a year playing somewhere after high school, the G League can be a legitimate challenger.

Mitten notes that the 1984 case NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma echoes what’s happening with Alston v. NCAA. In the former, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s self-regulation of TV rights to college football games violated antitrust law. As a result, colleges began competing among themselves to acquire TV rights.

In this theoretical free market system, the G League select contracts could put pressure on colleges to begin to compete for athletes by offering prospects graduation bonuses or other financial incentives. But while the ruling in Alston v. NCAA looms, for now, the increasing appeal of the G League is part of a pattern of emerging competition for the best amateurs possible. That means future Andre Ingrams will have more choice as to where they can take their talents. 

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