Why the NBA Does Free Agency Better Than the NFL—And What the NFL Can Do About It
We are nearing a new generation of athletes entering professional sports. These athletes have grown up knowing only a world with the internet and social media. These athletes were ranked in the nation as sixth graders, linked up with Bleacher Report at 18 years old to announce their college decisions in a viral video and enjoyed a second college recruitment after entering the transfer portal. These athletes, on a very basic level, want—nay, need—to feel wanted.
Companies across the country have been adjusting for Millennials entering the professional world in recent years. The next change is soon to come with Generation Z, the group of young people born between the mid-1990s and early-to-mid 2000s. If Fortune 500 companies have to get used to this new workforce, the sports leagues should too.
When it comes to free agency, the NFL has far less excitement when compared to other pro sports leagues. The teams have so much control that it seemingly takes forever for a football player to hit true unrestricted free agency once he gets through the fifth-year option and franchise or transition tags. And when he finally does, the deal is usually done on the first day of the new league year after his agent has worked with a team during (and before) the legal tampering window.
The NBA does free agency far better than the NFL. When July 1 hits, it’s all eyes on basketball. Elaborate pitches from teams in big and small markets are made to All-Stars. A player gets ostensibly locked in his home by his would-be teammates. Billboards are posted across a city. A region’s sports hero is flown to the Hamptons to help seal the deal. Star NBA free agents are taking their time signing with teams, weighing their options and hearing pitches from various teams in the first few days of free agency before making their decisions around the Fourth of July.
Contracts between the two sports leagues are obviously different so let’s not get too caught up in the weeds here. There’s no NFL equivalent to the NBA’s Bird rights or a max deal that pays a player more if he stays with the team that drafted him. At a very basic level, NFL contracts are almost never fully guaranteed and NBA contracts are, and the NFL has a hard salary cap that rose to $188.2 million this year while the NBA has a soft cap that taxes teams that overshoot it. The NFL owners won’t be changing those CBA mainstays any time soon.
But we do know that the NFL wants to own the news cycle year-round. So why is free agency such a letdown, especially compared to the NBA?
Next Wednesday, NFL free agency will officially begin at 4 p.m. ET, and we’ll essentially know where every top name is going by within an hour or two. Just like years past, this free-agency period will begin and end with a thud.
There’s reason to believe this will soon change in the NFL. Not only will the league want to capture the excitement, but a new generation of athlete may force it. No longer will it be enough for teams to point to a new stadium or head coach before slapping down the (non) guaranteed contract for the player to sign. The players of tomorrow are here today, and they’re going to need more.
And so whether natural or forced, the NFL will, at some point soon, have to reckon with a change to its free-agency period.
Soon-to-be free agent running back Le’Veon Bell took to Twitter Wednesday night to ask Landon Collins, Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Weddle to contact him so they can discuss where they all should play in 2019 and beyond.
Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams—who, at 23 years old, is squarely between the Millennial generation and Gen Z—responded, saying, “Man this isn’t the NBA. You tryna create a Golden State squad in the NFL!!”
The Warriors’ superteam notwithstanding (more on that later), NBA free agency has worked well in recent years in part because it’s been humanizing. The NBA is happy to play up the fact these guys are more than an X or O with a $12.5 million cap hit.
A year ago, before Paul George opted to remain in Oklahoma City, the Lakers put together a video recruiting pitch for the Southern California native that said in part, “While you dreamt, we built—built for your arrival.”
In luring Durant to Golden State, the Warriors sent every name to his rented home in the Hamptons and got him on the phone with consultant Jerry West to fit their “Strength In Numbers” theme. This took place during Boston’s failed recruitment that involved Tom Brady telling Durant how Boston embraces its winning sports teams.
When DeAndre Jordan nearly signed with the Mavericks in 2015, a contingent of Clippers players and coach Doc Rivers sat in Jordan’s home with him until the start of free agency to convince him to stay in L.A. in one of the greatest free-agency moments in social media history.
In 2014 before the Jazz matched the Hornets’ offer to restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, Charlotte welcomed Hayward to town and, having learned his favorite video game is StarCraft, put together a StarCraft-themed video pitching him on joining forces with Kemba Walker that played inside the arena during his visit.
And in one of the most elaborate free-agency campaigns, the Lakers in 2013 put up billboards across L.A. telling Dwight Howard to stay, asking fans to use the hashtag #StayD12 and getting ownership, coaches and players involved in the social media gestures, a fairly revolutionary idea six years ago.
No one should like the NBA’s free-agency period more than Warriors coach Steve Kerr. When I asked him what he enjoys best about it, he paused and smiled before saying “signing Kevin Durant,” which Golden State did in 2016. As a player, then an executive and now a coach, he’s seen free agency evolve over the years to more superstars jumping teams with more frequency and understands how it has excited individual fan bases and grown the game on a macro level.
“It just seems like these guys now know each other a lot better, whether it’s through Team USA or college ball or AAU ball,” Kerr says. “So they’re friendlier, they’re more likely to be in touch with one another during the season rather than just trying to just beat each other’s brains in like it used to be. It’s a different league and that leads to probably a different recruitment process in free agency.”
The same can be said for the NFL. These guys know each other today better than ever before. Outside of an AFC North matchup here or there, almost every game in the NFL today ends with players swapping jerseys and posing together on the field after the game. They go to elite camps together. They stay connected on social media. They attend numerous awards ceremonies in college. They bond at various pre-draft events. Then super agents or companies like CAA recruit them so they’re one degree of separation to each other. By the time they’re in the league, they’re playing in the other’s celebrity golf/basketball/kickball events.
As this younger generation bonds, there are also unique changes to feelings on employment that impact blue-collar employers the same way as professional sports leagues. I’m a Millennial, but for help putting some of this into words, I reached out to Jason Dorsey, a Gen Z and Millennial expert who has consulted with numerous Fortune 500 companies and has published 40 studies on these generations. He says that in terms of employment loyalty, the expectations for tenure from Millennials and Gen Z are much shorter than what Gen X and Baby Boomers define as loyalty.
“And that’s important because where one group thinks someone is disloyal and the other thinks they’re loyal, those are not just tenure differences—those are value differences,” Dorsey says. “One generation might say you’re disloyal, almost to the point of it’s unethical for you to leave. ‘Look at what I’ve done for you.’ And the other generation is looking up saying, ‘Yeah but look at what I’ve given you over that period of time.’ And it’s not that one’s right or one’s wrong, it’s just such a fundamental difference that it leads to some pretty nasty finger-pointing over who’s hurting whom.
“If you look all the way now to college football that people are now transferring schools for a better shot just kind of says it all. We’re only going to see more that. If you look at Gen Z, they have never expected in their lives to work in one place their entire lives and retire. Millennials were the first ones where that really struck, but Gen Z doesn’t know any differently. So it makes a ton of sense for them to go in saying, ‘I have to look at this as if I’m an entrepreneur not as if I’m an employee.’”
Any NFL players coming to mind?
At the turn of the decade, the NBA set out to shorten player contracts for three reasons: 1) to more closely tie pay to performance, 2) to give teams a chance to rebuild faster in the event a player was locked into a contract for too long and 3) to give players the flexibility to move on. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said recently the NBA expects to have 40% of its players be free agents this summer.
But here’s the important distinction Dorsey wants to make. Just because this generation of workers places a different value on employment loyalty doesn’t mean they’re always going to leave.
“They’re going to expect that you’re going to recruit them at every step. I don’t think it’s necessarily ego-driven. I just think it’s behavioral. This is what they’ve known. They’ve known it since college. This is normal,” Dorsey says. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to switch teams. Much in the same way, and I think this is a really important point, just because you think you’ve shown loyalty doesn’t mean you leave. It means that if you chose to leave, you’d leave feeling you have done what you were hired to do, and you’ve fulfilled your part of the bargain.
“There’s a whole story here where they’ve come of age having always been recruited. They expect that teams are going to offer them more.”
A sea change would be necessary for the NFL to perfectly reflect NBA free agency—and mirroring the NBA’s policies are impossible and, frankly, not necessary. We know that shift isn’t coming to the NFL anytime soon.
In an effort to open up its free agency, I posit two reasonable fixes, with one being less likely than the other. First, the NFLPA must fight to do away with the franchise tag during the next collective bargaining battle following the 2020 season. Some of the NFL’s top would-be free agents are annually denied entry to free agency because of the franchise tag that so many (very vocally) dislike. More big names in the free-agency pool will spice up the period.
But the owners will never go for that, a step that would ultimately see a team cede control to a player they had the good fortune and wherewithal to draft four or so years earlier.
The more plausible fix to the free-agency period is to change the legal tampering window to include direct contact between teams and soon-to-be free agents. On Monday, teams will be able to “contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become” unrestricted free agents. That window lasts for two days until the official start of free agency on March 13.
But why not allow players who in two days will be unrestricted free agents to visit with a team or two during this two-day (or longer!) window on what would be the NFL equivalent of an official college recruiting visit? It’s difficult to find any negative unintended consequences to this, and it would be sure to capture more excitement and buzz around this event for the year-round league—similar to how the NBA captures fans’ and media attention.
To be clear, while the NBA certainly has a better free-agency period, none of this is to say the NBA has it all right. The embarrassment that is the continuing Anthony Davis saga proves that. And what Golden State has been able to assemble via free agency hurts the point that NBA free agency is superior to all. (But in truth, if Durant had picked literally anywhere else, there’d be amazing parity in the NBA where a team in Milwaukee or Toronto, Denver or Houston could reasonably compete for a title. But because of his one decision, the entire balance of power has been thrown off in an otherwise remarkably competitive league across markets both big and small, and the Warriors are penciled in to win their fourth title in five years.) Even Silver admits his system isn’t the best.
“I think there's still work to be done to create a system where you can create, in essence, more parity of opportunity,” Silver said during last month’s All Star Game weekend. “I don't think success necessarily means that a different team wins the championship every year. I look at the NFL, which among sports leagues, probably has the best parity and the best system in terms of creating competition than any league I'm familiar with, yet the New England Patriots have been in the Super Bowl nine out of the last 18 years. And I don't think anyone points to that as a sign that the system isn't necessarily working.”
But the NFL’s system could learn a few things.
The Vikings won the Kirk Cousins Sweepstakes last year in large part because they were willing to offer him a three-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million. Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman had plenty of takeaways about recruiting free agents after last year’s experience.
“The one thing I know for us, which was a huge advantage for us, is that we have an excellent coaching staff,” Spielman says at the NFL combine. “We have some good players on our football team and we’re a very good football team, but also when they walked into that building that ownership built for us, our practice facility, the TCO Performance Center, US Bank Stadium to go play in that facility, I think that was a huge advantage for us once we got the players into that building.
“But it’s always going to come down to do you have a good football team, do they believe in the coaches you have. But having all that is a huge benefit.”
Perhaps it’s borne out of the fact that teams can’t do anything with a specific player until the start of the new league year, and that system forces teams and players to make decisions quickly. But it all felt plain and unimaginative in a league where even the smallest gestures go a long way, especially compared to the NBA, where teams pull out all of the stops. Washington’s NFL franchise will never be confused for cutting-edge, but three years ago after the Panthers rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag, general manager Bruce Allen sent Norman a customized Washington No. 24 jersey and dispatched a team plane for the free agent and his family. It made an impression on a guy who was hardly recruited out of high school.
So what can the NFL do?
“When you’re recruiting [players of younger generations] they want to feel wanted, but they also want to feel that you’re going to maximize their value in ways that align with them. They also want to know that frankly you’re a forward-thinking team,” Dorsey, the generation expert, says. “So thinking about engagement outside of an arena or stadium is incredibly important to them. How much awareness are we going to create? What are the platforms you’re going to give me? Are there going to be activations? How does this tie in with other brands?
“Gen Z does not remember a time before social media. That’s a massive shift. But owners who are usually two or three generations removed from that, they likely often don’t think in those terms. They think in terms of guarantees and money and very much the Baby Boomer carrot of, let me throw dollars at you and it’s all about the contract.”
Maximizing value and getting involved in what interests the player are two things the NBA has done well, Kobe Bryant told me in a recent interview.
“They listen to the voice of the athlete themselves. So like, you’re here as a league to help support the athletes in any way you possibly can. Sure there is some resistance in negotiation with the union and owners. Of course,” Bryant says. “But getting through that, it’s how can we help our athletes be better. How can we support them in various endeavors that they have, not just while they’re playing but also what are their ambitions post-career. How can we put them in situations to help them develop careers now? What are certain social activities that they’re really invested in and how can we support that? I think that’s something the NBA does extremely well.”
To execute his ideas, Dorsey proposes that each team has a personal brand strategist working for them. This person, or people, would be responsible to elevating a player’s profile in and outside of the stadium as technology and media evolve.
“I’m sure that the teams are thinking if we make their brand any bigger, that’s just going to make it more expensive for us in the long run,” Dorsey says, anticipating the Boomer mentality. “And there may be some truth to that. But if they’re drawing bigger crowds, then it may be worth that money.”
There’s no better way to maximize career earnings than making a career longer. Brand-new facilities are nice, but teams should invest in—and promote more—their recovery efforts. (The Patriots charter plane is a solid step and, in fairness to Spielman and the Vikings, having their practice facilities adjacent to a state-of-the-art performance center is a bonus.) NFL teams are getting more involved in sleep data. What if one NFL team becomes one of the best, year in and year out, at injury prevention? Schedule optimization, sleep performance, rest and recovery methods should all be used as recruiting tools.
Instead of pointing to your new stadium or how loud your fans can get, prove to the player you can do all you can to maximize their careers, thus making them more money in the long term.
“[Players] are quite savvy about the idea that this career is not going to last forever,” says Dorsey, who says he works regularly with NBA and NFL teams and players. “There is a lot of pressure to say how can I maximize the revenue that I get during my time playing, and how do I maximize all the other social things I can do in parallel that maybe extends out my income another five or 10 years.”
Here is what NFL free agency could look like in the near future:
With the official start to free agency just days away, a team flies in a prized free agent and his family to its city. Upon entering the stadium, the player watches a short video on the stadium’s massive videoboard put together by the team’s internal graphics team. It depicts him photoshopped in the team uniform hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in a future Super Bowl. Beneath the videoboard is the open spot in the team’s Ring of Honor where his name and retired number will one day be immortalized.
After visits with the coaching staff on how he’ll be used in the system and the facilities where he learns about the team’s advanced recovery methods, he makes his way to an executive’s office. A player relations director has prepared information on the area’s best schools for the kids. If the player is interested in a media career after his playing days, here are the official TV and radio partners of the team ready to get him in studio on the off day. The team’s brand strategist has put together a social plan the team will launch upon his signing that will make him visible to the local community and raise his profile nationally.
Players of today and tomorrow want to be more than athletes. Teams should rush to accommodate that.
“There are going to be teams that chose to adapt, and it’s going to be really interesting to watch,” Dorsey says. “Like many markets, once people see that something works then they tend to get on board. The question is going to be who are the first ones who really embrace that.”
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