Thursday, October 1, 2009

Further unraveling of basketball recruiting

Zhenyu Lai, a graduate student in Economics at Harvard, who is taking Market Design this semester, sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to reproduce below.

After last friday's class discussion on unravelling in markets, I came across this article about unravelling in NCAA basketball with a ton of good quotes and anecdotes.

What is particularly interesting is about the role played by agents. Increasingly, agents try to form relationships with potential NBA players early on in their college careers. And they're not just targeting the surefire stars, but gambling on marginal prospects.

Interesting excerpts:

1. Technological improvements aid unravelling markets. Agents are using facebook to make contact with players early.

2. Official rules are abused. Similar to the market example on clinical psychologists, looking at the NCAA rules for agent recruiting is very indicative of the unraveling problem. "Agents are free to contact players in high school or in college through social networking sites, on the phone or in person. As long as there is no written agreement or money exchanged, an agent or a representative of an agent can form a relationship with a player, his family and/or his handlers." An agent is quoted, "It's not breaking the rules. You're just building a relationship with a potential client down the road.". The columnist describes this as "the new normal in amateur basketball."

3. Coaches are in on it too. Much like the market for law clerks, agents (aka judges) develop relationship with coaches (aka law school deans) to ensure that they are making "a sound investment" on their prospect. However, coaches are getting ticked off. The "right way" to do this is apparently for the agents to approach the coach and the player's parents first, not to directly add the player on facebook, where the player may then bypass the coach completely.

4. Agent's argument for unravelling. "Domantay's argument for an agent's trying to make inroads in a profession dominated by an elite few is that if he were to wait until a college player's senior year, he becomes just another name on the list."

5. Argument that unraveling is bad. "If an agent contacts a kid directly, then there should be repercussions. Guys get in with kids and prey on the youthfulness and financial backgrounds and offer things to lock them in and set up a potential for blackmail: If I gave you this, then you owe me." Agents are using runners to form relationships with kids early and leveraging on family contacts and relationships. There is an aura of suspicion where high school kids are wary of who to trust.

6. Agent's motivation for promoting unraveling. "Whoever can control the kid can control the revenue stream -- [maybe] it's a kid going to college benefiting the college coach and leading to a better job. the player dictates the revenue. Everybody is trying to get in sooner and sooner however they can."

Interestingly, the columnist ends off with this quote which is filled with a tone of finality that unraveling is inevitable and an enduring legacy of capitalism,

"The pool of talent, with leagues all over the globe to fill and money to be made, means that anybody with potential is in play to be courted, and so too are their families, their friends, and their AAU and high school coaches. That's the new reality for college coaches. And there's no reason to think it will ever change back."

My thoughts on unraveling in college basketball:

1. High school students are usually at an impressionable age and easily influenced by people close to them, prompting this 'unraveling' process of agents trying to get close to them. While high school students might not be expected to make savvy long-term agent decisions, more needs to be done to make the agent seem like the "bad guy" for approaching the student early. No binding contract is allowed, and kids are empowered to change agents anytime. However, especially if the agent has some influence on a family member (or is a family member..), severing an agent relationship might be tricky. To discourage unraveling, there needs to be lower barriers to changing agents.

2. The NCAA doesn't have jurisdiction over agents (like in the case of federal judges), but some states do where a law states that there can be "significant damage resulting from the impermissible and often times illegal practices of some athlete agents. Violations of NCAA agent legislation impact the eligibility of student-athletes for further participation in NCAA competition". This law is passed in 38 states. However, this law affects the athletes and not the agents. One remedy would be for the NBA to revoke the right of agents to represent their clients if a recruiting violation is found. Agent's licenses could be subject to yearly review. Entry into the agent profession could be tightly regulated.

3. Perhaps NBA draftees could attend an "agent convention" where they could interview various representatives and have the right to choose from among them without any pressure. If it were a standard practice to be connected with legitimate agents only after you enter the NBA, players would then in no way be obliged to sign with an agent early even if they were to have already accepted illegal gifts.

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