Though the quality of play in the Continental Basketball
Association has never been higher, there are reminders that in
other ways CBA players are light years from their brethren in
the NBA. Beyond the interminable bus rides to towns such as Fort
Wayne, Ind., and the halftime promotions that offer a "lucky"
fan the chance to wrestle a bear, the CBA's most obvious
bush-league manifestation is on the bottom line.
Consider that a CBA team's entire payroll is often less than the
minimum NBA player's salary of $272,500. Or that 21 CBA teams
have folded in the past five years, and only two turned a profit
last season. "Traditionally our most basic problem has been
generating revenue, not keeping costs down," says CBA
commissioner Steve Patterson, the fifth man to hold that job
this decade. "We look at other minor leagues and feel there's no
reason why we can't be just as successful."
Despite its woes, the nine-team CBA has sent a steady flow of
players to the NBA, including 24 this season. What's more, 68
players on opening-day NBA rosters were CBA alums, including
stars John Starks and Anthony Mason. The CBA was also the
training ground for coaches Phil Jackson and George Karl. But if
it's such a vital pipeline to the big time, why is it less
stable than Dennis Rodman?
A major reason is a crippling relationship with the NBA. In
exchange for roughly $2 million a year in "developmental
support"--chump change for a league whose new TV contract is
worth $2.7 billion--the NBA can plunder CBA rosters. Thus CBA
clubs must try to field competitive teams while remaining wary
of players who are likely to be called up by midseason. "You
have to sell your games as affordable family entertainment,
because you never know how long your best guy will stick
around," says Steve Idelman, who owned the Omaha Racers for
seven years until the team folded last spring. It's not unusual
for a team to use 25 players during the 56-game season.
An obvious solution to this instability is to have the NBA align
each of its clubs with a CBA team, but the NBA players'
association frowns on any innovation that restricts player
movement, and NBA general managers are unlikely to support a
plan that limits the pool of CBA players from which they choose.
CBA executives also suspect the NBA has a more cunning reason
for keeping its feeder league at arm's length: Given that the
NBA's manifest destiny is the European market, commissioner
David Stern may be happy when talented players forgo the CBA and
defect to the other side of the pond. Rod Thorn, NBA vice
president of basketball operations, denies this, adding that
"the league is happy with the relationship it has with the CBA."
CBA owners recently got a glimpse of what life could be like
when they witnessed the first-year success of the WNBA. Backed
by the NBA's marketing juggernaut, which included a television
contract and $15 million in promotion, the women's league
dramatically outdrew the CBA. "I'm a big fan of women's
basketball," says Idelman, "but when it came time for the NBA to
throw its support behind another league, I always thought the
CBA had next."
If the CBA is such a vital pipeline to the NBA, why is it less
stable than Dennis Rodman?