How Unionization Will Transform NBA G-League

The NBA’s G-League has gone through a historic transformation over the past few years.

With the potential vote of its players to form a union Saturday, the league will continue to grow.

The investment of the NBA into the G-League is also evident in the recent signings of top prospects. Because of the presence of a new players association, these prospects’ futures are more secure than they were had they played for an NCAA-member institution.

There’s a lot of work to be done in the formation of a PA for the G-League, provided Saturday’s vote went as expected. To form the union, 50 percent plus one of the eligible players needed to vote in favor.

So far, the results of the vote are not public.

The new union must draw up a charter, elect officers, submit the appropriate filings to the National Labor Relations Board and the IRS. So the vote to authorize the union was really just the beginning.

That should all be a pretty painless process, however. The NBPA has supported the formation of a G-League union all along. It’s likely that the NBPA will also lend its expertise to get the G-League PA off the ground.

Yet, it would be foolhardy to simply assume the G-League PA will be a carbon-copy of the NBPA. The two organizations are separate entities for good reasons.

Chief among them is that the contract situations of G-League players are not and will not be identical.

For example, players on two-way contracts are covered by the NBPA, not the G-League PA. The same would go for players assigned to G-League teams by the NBA teams that own them. Among the primary differences between those situations is compensation.

Most G-League players currently make a base salary of $35,000. However, they can supplement that in various ways, including being called up to the NBA roster, bonuses doled out by NBA teams and playoff incentives.

Players on two-way deals can earn up to around $400,000 over the five-month season. The NBA prorates those players’ salaries both ways depending on how many in-season days they spend at each level.

Then there’s a new class of incoming talent like Daishen Nix. Scouts rated Nix as the top point guard in the country out of high school, and he committed to UCLA last August.

Last Tuesday, Nix announced his new decision to sign with the G-League instead. He will receive a salary of $300,000, nearly ten times what many G-League players will receive, and he will be part of the G-League’s Professional Pathway program.

Nix and other prospects his age, (who have a year before they are eligible for the NBA Draft), won’t play a traditional G-League schedule.

Instead, they will receive private coaching and training from NBA personnel.

The program is especially for top prospects coming out of high school to continue their grooming for the NBA during that “in-between year.” The NBA won’t consider most G-League players for it, and that’s part of the reason for the disparity in compensation.

Regardless, the extent of the compensation disparity suggests the G-League’s new PA has work to do in regards to the issue.

If the NBA can afford to drop $300,000 on a prospect that might never see a single minute in its league, its franchises that are involved can arguably also pay G-League players more than $35,000.

There are more considerations than just player bonuses and salaries, however.

For example, the ability of G-League players to collectively bargain means the opportunity to form group licensing deals. That could open up an avenue for compensation which might reach and surpass players’ base salaries. The league’s title sponsor is a good example of this aspect of the business.

Gatorade has never disclosed how much it pays for the presenting sponsor title for the entire league. While there’s likely some in-kind value to the partnership, it’s probably mostly a cash deal.

Currently, there is little structure for how players collectively share in league revenues. The individual G-League and NBA teams pay call-up and other in-season bonuses. The G-League does pay postseason bonuses to players as well.

A collective bargaining agreement will afford players the opportunity to tap into that Gatorade sponsorship and other league-level basketball revenues on a greater, scheduled basis. In a similar way, any companies that wish to use G-League players in their marketing will have to go through the PA to do so.

Usually, that leads to opportunities for multiple players. As commercial opportunities and total compensation for more G-Leaguers grow, that should have a snowball effect.

Apr 1, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) poses with the two trophies he won as Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA G League with the Raptors 905 team at Scotiabank Arena before playing Orlando Magic. Holding the awards are the Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela (left) and general manager Chad Sanders. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Whether the G-League wants to publicly position itself as a competitor to NCAA D1 men’s basketball or not, it effectively is.

That goes beyond fans’ limited entertainment budgets to competing for the best prospects.

There are a handful of players like Nix every year and still in 2020, NCAA-member institutions’ men’s basketball programs land the vast majority of top-rated talent out of high schools around the country.

The G-League won’t ever recruit on the same scale. There are only 27 teams, and NBA franchises will always want to keep rosters flexible for their purposes.

Because of that, NCAA D1 men’s basketball will always win that battle in terms of volume of prospects.

The G-League can win the war for the cream of the crop, however. That counts for those who don’t warrant the attention of the Professional Pathway program too.

The G-League can offer immediate compensation and a path to building an athlete’s brand that not only is free of restrictions but backed by the power of some of the most powerful companies in the world. Meanwhile, the NCAA’s members toil in the antiquated and exploitative model of “amateurism” for athletes.

If the G-League can skim the top 10-15 prospects out of high school each year consistently, it will become the destination for future lottery picks. The new PA should lend nicely toward that end.

The formation of this union is important for philosophical reasons as well, however. At a time when companies like Amazon are firing employees for trying to organize their co-workers, it’s an important optic.

The support of the NBA, the NBPA and the G-League in this endeavor shows that those organizations truly value the labor necessary to put on the show.

Because of that, the G-League’s show will go on for years to come.