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NCAA, NBA forging youth hoops pact

March 17, 2008

Professional and collegiate basketball are on the brink of a landmark agreement that hoops insiders said will change the landscape of the sport in this country. Proponents say it would be good for basketball, but others say it's an attempt to further commercialize the sport.

The agreement between the NBA and the locally headquartered NCAA would be a major departure for both organizations, which have maintained separate agendas and have never had a formal business partnership. Neither organization has ever made a foray into youth basketball, which is a major subject of discussion between the two groups.

The desire to bring structure to youth basketball development and to field improved teams for international competition is the driving force behind the agreement. For two years, the parties have been discussing a pact to develop year-round training programs for high school players and academies for elite players; conduct sanctioned co-branded youth leagues, tournaments and development programs for coaches and officials; and explore corporate partnerships that could pay for such sweeping initiatives.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions said talks have intensified since NCAA President Myles Brand was a guest of the NBA at last month's All-Star weekend in New Orleans. The pact has not been finalized, and NCAA and NBA officials said no time line for an announcement has been set.

Minimizing contact between young players and the shoe companies and apparel makers that often stage summer basketball leagues and tournaments is a central goal of the deal, but there are some self-serving motives, industry experts said, especially on the part of the NBA.

"The NBA has never shown any interest in high school sports until there's a LeBron James," said Blake Ress, Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner. "It strikes me as strange that the NBA suddenly has all this interest in developing high school and youth basketball."

Another part of the NBA's motivation is clear, industry observers said. NBA Commissioner David Stern has made no secret of his desire to expand the brand globally, and an improved Team USA in the Olympics and other international competitions helps him do that.

NCAA officials said their motivation is simply to elevate the game of basketball. But youth basketball initiatives co-branded by the sport's most powerful collegiate and professional bodies has an undeniable monetary component. It would open a bevy of opportunities for sponsorships and other corporate involvement, sports marketers said.

"The NBA and NCAA realize they have to take care of their own," said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a locally based sports marketing consultancy. "Their own being basketball. This is smart business."

USA Basketball President Val Ackerman endorses the NCAA/NBA pact. USA Basketball, national governing body for men's and women's basketball in the United States and the entity charged with fielding teams for international competition, has been heavily involved in the discussions, Ackerman said.

"The fact that the NBA and NCAA are coming together in an energetic way to take a comprehensive look at youth basketball is very encouraging," Ackerman said. "This is not just about basketball; it's about preparing young people for life."

Ackerman is among several basketball heads of state negotiating the deal. Besides Ackerman, Brand and Stern, officials for the Amateur Athletic Union and locally based National Federation of State High School Associations have been involved.

NBA spokesman Tim Frank told IBJ the league had no comment on discussions with the NCAA at this time. But Stern addressed the matter during the NBA All-Star weekend last month.

"We share so many commonalities about the development of basketball that it was just a natural to begin a dialogue," Stern told reporters after his annual State of the League press conference. "In addition to the focus on youth basketball, we envision over time we would be sharing things about officiating, best practices and training."

Stern and his lieutenants recently toured IMG Academies in Florida as they began to study how to develop basketball academies for elite players, and the topic has come up in discussions with NCAA officials, industry insiders said.

While there seems to be some disconnect between the NBA's for-profit motives and the NCAA's affiliation with not-for-profit educational institutions, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said, "Both organizations realize the health of the game is paramount."

"We're looking at ways that we might be able to work together for the betterment of the game," Williams said. "We want to bring all the entities involved in youth basketball together and discuss what's working and what's not working. This is breaking new ground."

IHSAA's Ress isn't the only one who thinks NCAA and NBA officials should keep their noses out of youth basketball.

Sonny Vaccaro, who has handled grass-roots marketing for Nike, Reebok and Adidas, told Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal the system does not need to be overhauled.

"They keep coming back to summer basketball and AAU coaches, but how bad can it be when we have the greatest players who have come through the system adding to the benefit of both the college and NBA game?" Vaccaro said.

Several people within the industry, however, said a move to overhaul youth basketball is long overdue.

"When coaches cooperate in systematic development of players on and off the court, it's better for the players," Sunrise Sports Group's Morton said.

Any agreement has to be about more than developing youngsters' basketball skills, said Robert Kanaby, executive director for the locally based National Federation of State High School Associations.

"We realize there's a business interest in this," Kanaby said. "The NBA is making a multimillion-dollar investment in some of these young people. But there's another side to this. There's a need to develop these athletes as citizens, and we've represented that point of view at every meeting we've attended."

IHSAA's Ress finds it ironic that the NBA would position itself alongside the NCAA to mold young people.

"With the problems the NBA has, I don't know what they can do to improve the development of youth and high school basketball," Ress said. "The NBA is trying to latch onto anything to clean up its own image."

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