What the N.B.A. May Need: a Soccer-Style Way to Banish Bad Teams

Dave Checketts believed he had experienced pretty much everything in his decades-long career as a sports executive. As the Knicks’ president, he had hired Pat Riley as coach in 1991, launching a memorable decade of championship contention at Madison Square Garden. As a founding owner of an M.L.S. franchise in Salt Lake City with his company, SCP Worldwide, he had negotiated a partnership with Real Madrid that helped to produce one of the early soccer-specific stadiums in the United States and an M.L.S. Cup title in 2009.

But none of Checketts’s years in the N.B.A., N.H.L. (as owner of the St. Louis Blues for a few years starting in 2006) or M.L.S. had prepared him for a Sunday in May 2022 when Burnley, the English football club, was relegated from the Premier League for the first time in six years — in a stomach-churning, one-goal defeat, at home, on the season’s final day.

“For a regular-season event, I’d never witnessed anything like that,” said Checketts, who had been appointed to the club’s board of directors in 2021. “It was gripping, and then, it’s over, you’re relegated, out of the top league. Fans were sobbing. It was a funeral service. But because I was at home in Connecticut, I could look at it from a distance, also see it as business strategy.”

He recalled telling his wife, Deb, “The N.B.A. needs to do this!”

In a calmer state, he recognized that North American professional basketball lacks the lower-league infrastructure of European soccer to consider for promotion/relegation, among other cultural and financial disqualifying factors. But in a recent discussion, Checketts, 67, spoke with The New York Times about the increasing connectedness of global sport.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did your association with Burnley F.C. come about?

Our M.L.S. team was not doing well the first two years. After we started badly in Year 3, I let everybody go. There was a young partner in our firm, Alan Pace, and I asked him to be interim C.E.O. Alan fell in love with the game. When he put together the deal to buy Burnley in 2020, he called and said, “The Premier League is telling me I’ve got to have someone who’s been around professional sports.” I put money in and joined his ownership group.

After relegation in 2022, you experienced promotion, the flip side, with Burnley losing only three games in the second tier, or Championship. What was that like?

There was a coach who had been there for a decade, Sean Dyche, who was so popular that there was a bar there named for him. But we were losing and Alan fired him with a few games left in the relegation season. The fans went crazy on social media; it was ugly. This guy’s an American — what does he know?

Then Alan hired Vincent Kompany, who’d been a star at Manchester City and was coaching in Belgium. He shed payroll, went with young players and a new attacking system. When we won the Championship, they held a parade, which I was there for. Burnley is very industrial, one of the oldest clubs in the world. The stadium seats only about 20,000, but it felt like the whole city was there, tens of thousands.

J.J. Watt, one of two former N.F.L. players — Malcolm Jenkins being the other — to invest in Burnley, was at the clinching game and got to carry the trophy. Why is English football suddenly attracting U.S. celebrities? (Watt’s wife, Kealia, who played in the National Women’s Soccer League, is also an investor.)

Obviously, Ryan Reynolds’s buying Wrexham and the television series has been a huge factor, as well as “Ted Lasso” on Apple. But Americans have always had a fascination with England, anything with the royal family. And look, Americans are also used to watching what they think is the best in sport. It’s not surprising that with soccer’s growth there’s a fascination with the Premier League.

If promotion/relegation would never fly in American pro leagues, including M.L.S., is there any sports entity where it could be workable?

I think it’s an absolutely great idea to have a power conference in college football, and there you could have promotion/relegation, where the bottom three or four would go down, but would still be able to play major college teams. It would create incredible interest. But you’d need a central power source, like a pro commissioner, and the N.C.A.A. is not that.

Speaking of borrowing from Europe, the N.B.A. is launching an in-season tournament, but it already has a tournament — it’s called the playoffs. Will this work?

I think if you went out on the street, even in New York City, and asked, what is this N.B.A. tournament about, I doubt many would know. It’s a separate tournament, but the results count in the regular-season standings? They’re going to Las Vegas for the championship in December?

Let’s say Phoenix goes to Vegas and wins the championship. Do they go home and have a celebration? In Europe, they certainly do celebrate winning any cup.

It doesn’t feel like American fans need it, but [N.B.A. Commissioner] Adam Silver is never afraid to try something new, and maybe it will stimulate some interest.

Some of the N.B.A.’s best players now are foreign-born. Might there ever be European team expansion?

In 1990, when I was general manager of N.B.A. International, we were already identifying expansion cities, but I don’t think owners are spending any time on it anymore. It’s fine to go over and play a few games for marketing. But you start complicating things with collective bargaining, television contracts, labor laws. If we were looking at it 33 years ago and it hasn’t happened yet, I doubt it’s ever going to happen. Certainly not in my lifetime.

On the aforementioned subject of American fans demanding the best in a particular sport, where is M.L.S. on becoming a true major league on the international stage?

[Lionel] Messi has made an obvious difference this summer, but how long can he go and what happens after that? How many guys can be given $50 million? How do you get that huge network deal? For me, the financial side was impossible to carry on. (Checketts sold his stake in Real Salt Lake in 2013.)

First of all, we play in the summer so foreign players have to leave to play for their national teams. It would also help if the best U.S. players stayed in M.L.S. except you usually have a national team coach who prefers they go to Europe because the game is so much better. So it’s a difficult challenge, but you do have the World Cup coming here in 2026 and it would help if the U.S. could be really competitive. This may be a make-or-break decade.

Source link