The Business of Sports


Lebron James

Even Stevens

When Larry Bird won his 1st NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981 at the beginning of the “Bird Era,” there was a young 5 year old boy in Zionsville, IN who was watching taped Indiana Hosiers basketball games before he would go to Kindergarten. That boy’s name was Brad Stevens.

Fast forward the clock 20 years, Stevens had just finished a college career at Division 3 school, DePauw University; a 4-year varsity letter-winner, 3-time Academic All-American, Team Captain, and recipient of the Coaches Award given to the most selfless, team-oriented player.

Stevens was the 6th man at Division 3 Depauw University, where he was given the Coaches’ Award his Senior Season, given to the team’s most team-oriented player. 

Stevens graduated with Honors from DePauw with a degree in Economics and an excellent job at the prestigious global health care company Eli Lilly.

Only a year into his first job out of college, the Indiana native realized something was missing … and that something was basketball. He quit his job and became a volunteer assistant in the Butler University basketball office. Butler quickly gave Stevens a low paying administrative basketball operations coordinator position. One year later, Stevens was promoted into a full time assistant role, where they would go 131-61 over the course of the next 5 years, before Stevens took over the Head Coaching job and became the second youngest Head Coach in Division 1 college basketball.

In his first season as a head coach, Stevens set a Butler school and Horizon League record, rattling off 30 wins, as Stevens was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award. His next year, despite losing 4 starters and projected to finish 5th in the Horizon League, the mid-major school went to the Big Dance once again, with Stevens being named Horizon League Coach of the Year and once again earning several finalist votes for National Coach of the Year.

In his third season as the Head Coach (2009-10 season), Stevens became the second youngest head coach to lead his team to a National Championship where they narrowly lost to Duke 61-59 on a narrowly missed half court heave from current Celtic Gordon Hayward.

Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs went to two back to back National Championship games, being the only ever mid-major team to make back to back title game appearances. 

The very next year, Stevens somehow managed to bring the mid-major team all the way back to the National Championship, this time losing to UConn. Back to back national championships are unheard of in today’s college basketball world, let alone from a mid-major school.

Fast forward the clock to July 3, 2013 when Brad Stevens was signed on as Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. In his second season as Head Coach, Stevens led a rebuilding Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 7th seed. One year later, the Celtics returned to the playoffs, this time finishing 5th in the Eastern Conference. And in 2016-17, Stevens brought the Celtics all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference, finishing 1st in the Eastern Conference.

This brings us to now … the 2017-18 season. With a team that had been steadily building to contend to bring Boston it’s 18th banner. 6 minutes into the season, the team lost their 2nd best player in Gordon Hayward; followed only a few months later losing their best player in Kyrie Irving. The team has been inundated with extended injuries to key players like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris.  And yet it appears Stevens has pressed every right button through the course of what was an extremely challenging season in regards to injuries.

This Celtics team won eight games in which they trailed by 15 points, the third-highest single-season total since 1996. This team has seen the emergence of former role players like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown along with the emergence of Jayson Tatum to produce the Eastern Conference’s 2nd best regular season record.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown
Stevens has pulled all the right strings on an unlikely group led by the emergence of players like “Scary Terry” Rozier (12) and Jaylen Brown. 

How? Stevens’ believes all his players on his roster can fit into their sets and run the offense. His belief in Rozier and even Larkin to run the point has been well documented. When Hayward went down, Tatum became the starter in his “Next Man Up” philosophy.

Stevens actions on the sidelines are cool and collected, earning him the nickname “Even Stevens.” He analyzes the game and watches intently from the sideline. Make no mistake about it, Stevens gets animated about bad calls occasionally, but picks those spots wisely. His composure has seemingly carried over to his teams’ resiliency in coming back this year.

Nurturing such a strong culture while returning only 4 players from last year’s team is an enormous challenge. It starts with Danny Ainge drafting tough players (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum). Ainge picks the players but Brad Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. His stoic demeanor and play-calling genius is what he is known for, but make no mistake about it, Stevens is an all school hard-ass … if you don’t play hard, you come out.

Danny Ainge (middle), deserves equal praise to Stevens as he has become one of the League’s most respected GM’s. This year he traded out of the #1 spot to take Duke’s Jayson Tatum at the #3 spot while picking up a 2019 1st round draft pick. Tatum has vastly outperformed both Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, who were taken before him in this year’s draft. 

The players still feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them and himself to almost impossible standards, which is an almost impossible balance to strike. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created a culture of serious, consistent tough work. Toughness and mental strength without talent don’t get you very far in the world’s best league, but when you combine all of them you get a team that punches above their weight. Boston just makes fewer mistakes than any rival. It starts on the defensive end, they are ultra switchable on defense, always moving on a string. Their greatness on defense lies in the absence of spatial mistakes. A team this big and this attuned can close windows faster than anyone else. They show a similar composure in tense moments; game 7 against the Bucks, 3 close games against the 76ers, culminating in an almost perfect final 90 seconds to close out Game 5.

Brad Stevens didn’t receive a single vote for this year National Basketball Coaches Association trophy, which was awarded to Toronto’s Dwane Casey (who has since been fired after getting swept by the Cavaliers last round). When the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is announced next month, expect Stevens to be at the top of the list.

Stevens’ ability behind the helm has started to draw comparisons to that other coach in Boston, Bill Belichick. And while the red-hot Lebron and the Cavs seem to pose a formidable challenge in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals, don’t bet against Stevens and the C’s.

It’s not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog.

In Danny, We Trust

Three months after meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs and Celtics completed an unprecedented swap of All-Star Guards, sending Kyrie Irving to Boston and Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland. And while the Boston faithful had been asking General Manager Danny Ainge to pull the trigger on a deal for quite some time with the accumulated assets the franchise had, the blockbuster trade received some mix reviews. But in looking at Ainge’s track record and fully dissecting the deal itself, I firmly believe Danny and the C’s franchise have just struck gold … once again.

Let’s look at Danny Ainge. In a ranking of the NBA’s top General Managers and Presidents, ESPN gave Ainge a score of 8.54 out of 10 – third best only behind the Spurs’ President and GM combo of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford and Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers. Ainge is best known for landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, essentially building a championship team overnight and paving the way for their 17th NBA Championship. Most recently, he assembled a treasure cove of draft picks in the Brooklyn Nets 2013 trade, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Ainge proceeded to slowly rebuild the Celtics into a contender through a series of shrewd deals, most notably adding Jae Crowder in December 2014 and Isaiah Thomas in February 2015. Fast forward to the 2016-2017 season, and the Celtics finished first in the regular season Eastern Conference and held the first overall pick entering the 2017 NBA Draft.

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are rated by ESPN as the 3rd best GM and Head Coach in the NBA respectfully. While Ainge has been a mastermind in maneuvering the Celtics’ roster, Stevens has proven that he can take whatever personnel in front of him and deliver results. 

Danny has held the keys to the Ferrari for a little while now. He had built a top 5 team in the NBA on the floor while behind the scenes maneuvering his roster to build enough cap room to sign 1-2 big free agents and masterfully stockpiling enough draft picks to single handedly draft an NBA All-Rookie team. Now the 2017-2018 Celtics team features 10 new faces and only 4 returners, with many projecting a starting line-up of Irving, Hayward, Brown, Morris and Horford.

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With a top 10 (arguably top 5) NBA player in Kyrie Irving, another versatile All-Star in Hayward, 2 above-average bigs in Horford and Morris who both averaged above 14 ppg last year, two of the best youth talents in the game with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and a deep backcourt with Rozier and Smart backing up Brown and Irving, this team in most people’s opinion is an improvement from last year’s group.

While the odds didn’t change who the favorite is to win the East in 2018 (Cavs 4/1 and Celtics 10/1), the trade made sense for the Celtics on almost every level.

First, the Celtics needed a super-star … and they got one in Kyrie Irving. While Kyrie’s and Isaiah’s number were very similar last year (Kyrie – 25.2 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.8 rpg / Isaiah – 28.9 ppg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 rpg), Kyrie was doing that with the NBA’s best player beside him taking the majority of shots. In the NBA Finals and much of the playoffs, many felt Kyrie Irving outperformed Lebron James.  3 years younger than Thomas, Irving has already been named the Rookie of the Year, an All-Star 4 separate times (including winning an All-Star Game MVP) and winning the most important accolade of them all, an NBA Championship.

Second, Isaiah has plateaued. While Isaiah surprised a lot of people averaging 29 ppg, he was more of a source of entertainment than a legitimate centerpiece to help a team win a NBA championship. Don’t get me wrong Isaiah will be forever remembered in Boston for his contagious smile and courageous swagger. He went from being the last pick in the NBA draft to a name that was uttered in MVP conversations. Having said all that, Isaiah was a huge liability on the defensive side of the ball, and is considered one of the weakest defensive point guards in the NBA. Moreover, we have likely seen the best of Isaiah Thomas due to his season ending torn labrum injury that has been the source of a lot of discussion. In fact Isaiah’s injury almost killed the deal as it has been rumored that he is suffering from arthritis and loss of cartilage that it will impact the rest of his career.

IT captured Celtics fans’ hearts and earned the nickname “King of the Fourth.” Injured and having come off his best season ever, Isaiah found the fortune of his own fate as Danny Ainge capitalized at the perfect time to replace him with the league’s best one-on-one scorer and the C’s long awaited superstar in Kyrie Irving.

And lastly, what about the rest of the deal? The Celtics had to give up Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, their 2018 Nets Pick and their 2020 Miami Heat 2nd round pick. Jae Crowder’s value immediately went down when the Celtics traded for Marcus Morris from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Avery Bradley. Morris’ numbers were actually better than Crowder’s in 2017, and possesses a very similar type of physical game that compliments Horford’s finesse game well down low. Zizic is an unproven 7 footer commodity, who is at least 2 years away from making any sort of potential impact. And lastly, the draft picks. While the 2018 Nets pick is nice, the Celtics also have the Lakers’ 2018 pick, Memphis’ 2019 pick and the Clippers’ 2020 pick tucked away.

Most would argue that Danny is not done. This team currently assembled cannot beat the Warriors in the NBA Championship and may struggle with the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, given the future picks and the available potential cap room, many believe bringing in a Kristas Porzingis from the New York Knicks or an Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans would be the final piece of the puzzle to make the 18th banner a legitimate possibility.

Porzingis, at over 7 feet tall and only 22 years of age, may fit the best. He is a phenomenal interior defender, efficient rebounder and can shoot the ball from beyond the arch.

Kristaps Porzingis is a 22 year old Latvian forward who can shoot, defend and rebound. 

Meanwhile, Davis can do everything that Porzingis can do, but better. The 24 year old former Kentucky star averaged 28.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, while shooting 50.5% from the field last year. This deal, if it were to happen, would likely come after the All Star break after the Cousins – Davis combo is given a little more time to develop and prove itself (although this experiment has not gone exactly as planned). Moreover, the Celtics would likely have to give up Horford, either Tatum or Brown and their 2018 Lakers pick which is certainly quite a bit. The last potential option that has made it’s run through the trade-mill is Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Anthony Davis is a human highlight reel, averaging a double-double last year with 28 ppg and 12 rbg. 

While Gasol is an aging 32 year old Center, and is owed an average of $22.6 million through 2020, the proven veteran (3x All-Star, 2x All-NBA selection, 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year) is coming off career highs of 19.5 ppg and 4.6 assists. The Gasol deal would also make the 2019 Memphis pick more valuable and add a much needed veteran presence to what is otherwise a very young basketball team.


Ainge and the Celtics have started to move their chess pieces with the blockbuster Irving / Thomas deal. And while the consensus is they are one final move away from molding a team that could resemble the Celtics of the 80’s and 90’s, the Celtics’ faithful have every reason to be as excited as ever for the immediate future.

Needless to say, in Danny – we trust.





Adidas Loves the Beard – Rockets’ Harden Inks $200 Million Endorsement Deal

Adidas has lured Houston Rockets guard James Harden away from the Swoosh with a 13-year, $200 million offer that was announced yesterday.


Right now, Harden will average $16.78 million on the final three years of his deal with the Rockets and $15.38 million annually. However, if Harden reaches certain benchmarks, it’s entirely possible that he will earn from Adidas than he will from the Rockets.


Adidas was in significant need of signing a marquee player. Under Armour has Stephen Curry, Nike has LeBron James and now Adidas has James Harden … all 2014-15 All-NBA first team selections. Nike claims approximately 95% of the U.S. basketball sneakers, while Under Armour is very quickly expanding its own line of products and passed Adidas last year as the second-largest seller behind Nike. In the first six months of this year, Adidas sold fewer shows in the U.S. than Skechers and New Balance. Part of Adidas’ underwhelming basketball brand performance can be attributed to big injuries to two of their main stars, John Wall and Derrick Rose.

Adidas' new superstar James Harden faces off against the face Under Armour's brand, Steph Curry.
Adidas’ new superstar James Harden faces off against the face Under Armour’s brand, Stephen Curry in last year’s NBA Playoffs.

Earlier this year, Adidas chose not to renew a deal with the NBA that had established it as the official outfitter of the league and in came Nike with an 8-year partnership that is worth roughly $1 billion. Moreover, Under Armour announced its own global marketing partnership with the NBA, which positions the brand as a title partner and outfitter of the NBA Draft Combine, presenting partner of the Junior NBA program in the U.S. and allows Under Armour to work with the league to launch an NBA FIT mobile app.

Nike and the NBA agreed on a league wide partnership worth about $1 billion last month that will make Nike the official jersey provider.
Nike and the NBA agreed on a league wide partnership worth about $1 billion last month that will make Nike the official jersey provider.

Adidas foresees Harden making a big splash in China, as the Rockets have remained a fan favorite in the Far East since the days of Yao Ming. The deal will feature a signature Harden shoe, his own apparel line, as well as Harden traveling on extensive brand tours in Europe and Asia. Additionally, Harden has started dating Khloe Khardashian who is a marketing machine herself and will undoubtedly raise his visibility into other demographics. Nonetheless, Harden’s jersey sales were only 14th in the league last year behind players like Damian Lillard, Dirk Nowitzski and Chris Paul. Adidas is expecting the deal to help move his merchandise sales upwards.

James Harden and TV personality, Khloe Kardashian, have started dating.
James Harden and TV personality, Khloe Kardashian, have started dating.

Harden’s endorsement deal with Adidas, which will officially begin on October 1st of this year, speaks to the increased value placed in brand marketing. Harden, who was not that long ago a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder, will now be making more money from this deal than what seven-time NBA All Star Tracy McGrady and eleven-time NBA All Star Allen Iverson made throughout their respective careers from on-court earnings. In basketball and major U.S. sports in general, a highly marketable player and personality like a James Harden can earn more money by pushing a brand than his performance on the court. While on court performance and off-court marketability are highly correlative, Harden’s Adidas deal speaks to how marketability is valued more so now than ever.

James Harden will earn more money in his new deal with Adidas than either Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson earned for their on-court performance in their entire careers.
Harden will earn more money in his new deal with Adidas than either Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson earned for their on-court performance in their entire careers.

One thing remains the same, Nike is still firmly established as the dominant shoe and apparel company in basketball, as they hold long-running endorsement deals with the three most globally popular (active or former) players in the world in LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan. And so they have the luxury of being able to allow MVP runner-up and All-NBA mainstay James Harden bolt to their three-stripe rival without much fuss. Nike had the option to match Adidas’ offer but chose not to, perhaps because of their recent large investment in getting the NBA league wide deal.

Nike’s Latest Win

It was just announced on Wednesday that Nike and the NBA have agreed to an 8 year, $1 billion jersey deal that will begin in the 2017-18 season.

This deal will represent approximately a 245 percent annual increase from the previous deal that the NBA had held with Adidas. In 2006, the NBA announced an 11-year, $400 million deal with Adidas, who at the time had taken over for Reebok (a brand which it now owns). It was reported that Adam Silver and the NBA had become unhappy with Adidas after they fell to third in the United States in shoe and apparel sales, behind Nike and Under Armour. This past March, Adidas announced that they would not seek to extend its jersey deal with the league.

Nike has produced replica NBA jerseys through their Swingman brand line and produced official NBA jerseys in the 1990s.
Nike has produced replica NBA jerseys through their Swingman brand line and produced official NBA jerseys in the 1990s.

You might wonder why the NBA announced this so early in advance, as their current deal with Adidas is good through the 2016-17 season. The simple answer is that both sides have already mutually agreed to part ways at the end of the deal. Adidas still wants a return on their investment, so don’t expect to see any letdown from them in the coming years. They have done some new things, such as jerseys with sleeves and their special Christmas Day branded jerseys. With Adidas and the NBA coming to this decision to split early, there was no reason for the NBA to not go ahead and search for their next official jersey supplier.

Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, is extremely excited about the new jersey deal with the NBA.
Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, is extremely excited about the new jersey deal with the NBA.

A major win in this jersey deal for Nike is that the Nike Swoosh will appear on all NBA jerseys, a first for the league. Nike President and CEO, Mark Parker, is extremely excited about the deal, “In Nike, Jordan and Converse, we have three of the most connected brands in the world, and look forward to making the global growth of the game a successful strategy for both the NBA and Nike.” Since 1992, Nike has been a marketing partner of the NBA. At retail, they have been able to successfully produce replica NBA jerseys under their Swingman line. Furthermore, Nike and its affiliated brands, control more than 90% of the U.S. basketball shoe market at retail. The company holds endorsement deals with many of the league’s top stars: Lebron James, Kevin Duran, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to name just a few.

Lebron James is one of several big stars that Nike has large brand endorsement deals with.
Lebron James is one of several big stars that Nike has large brand endorsement deals with.

In 2012, Nike was able to win the bidding war for the official uniform deal of the NFL, and they have extended those rights until the end of the 2019 season. Most industry experts would agree that Nike has been relatively conservative with their NFL jersey designs, excluding a few franchises like the Jaguars, Buccaneers and the Seahawks. NFL owners tend to be more conservative businessman compared to those owners of NBA franchises. It is expected that Nike may have a little more creative freedom with these NBA jerseys. Having said that, with the limitation of space on the NBA jersey canvas (no sleeves, shorts and not pants, no high socks, required number on the front of the jersey), Nike’s design team will have to be resourceful to create a groundbreaking design.

One issue of debate with the new Nike NBA jerseys is whether or not there will be advertising on the jerseys. That question may largely be tied to the television deal with Turner Sports. ESPN Sports Business Reporter, Darren Rovell, says, “With such a large and lucrative ESPN/Turner deal getting done, it brought into question the worry that there might be some companies who might try to cannibalize the business of TV and not buy television advertisements. I think that’s enough of a concern to keep advertisements off jerseys until the end of the TV deal and maybe forever.”

Adam Silver (left), the NBA's current commissioner, and David Stern (right), the NBA's former commissioner, have two different views on the league's jerseys.
Adam Silver (left), the NBA’s current commissioner, and David Stern (right), the NBA’s former commissioner, have two different views on the league’s jerseys.

Now, Adam Silver shares a much different opinion on the NBA’s jerseys than former commissioner David Stern maintained. Stern felt strongly that there should be no other competing brands on the NBA jerseys besides the team brands, which is what negated Adidas putting their trademark logo on the jerseys. Silver, however, not only feels strongly about putting the supplier’s brand on the jerseys, but is also pushing for corporate advertising on the jerseys.

This new deal will have no impact on a few teams who have new uniform designs coming out. The Philadelphia 76ers will be unveiling new uniforms next week; while the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks will be announcing new uniform designs later this summer as well.

Regardless, this is a huge win for Nike. Nike will now have the official jersey deals for the two US professional sports leagues with the widest global marketing reach.

James vs. Curry: Magical Marketing Matchup

The NBA Finals this year features perhaps the most entertaining matchup since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980’s. LeBron James, the 4-time NBA MVP and the 2-time NBA Finals MVP is considered the best basketball player on the planet and certainly has the personality to back up his game. His polarizing presence has made him hated by many and a villain looking to dethrone MJ as the best ever. On the other side of the court is Stephen Curry. The humble, soft-spoken kid who got passed over by all the top college programs, to later prove everyone wrong and become the best shooter of the game’s generation, and perhaps of all-time.

While Cleveland and Golden State are not exactly big market basketball cities, the matchup of James vs. Curry is making this Final one of the more hyped matchups in recent years. It is good versus evil. Two kids both born in Akron, Ohio; one of whom exploded as a youth, was a can’t miss athletic specimen, went from the preps to the pros, and was taken #1 in the NBA draft, while the other was a skinny lanky kid who struggled to make his High School basketball team, was overlooked by almost all big college basketball programs, surprised everyone in the NCAA tourney at Davidson, and then exploded to win the 2014-15 NBA MVP.

Lebron James (left) at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and Steph Curry (right) at Charlotte Christian High School.
Lebron James (left) at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and Steph Curry (right) at Charlotte Christian High School.

The story of these two could not be any more different. One is a pure athlete, the other is a pure shooter. Many dislike one, while the other seems to be loved by all. One is supposed to win everything, whereas the other wasn’t supposed to win anything. And yet both were born in the very same town of Akron, Ohio and they meet for the first time in the NBA Finals.

The NBA, as a whole, does an extremely good job at marketing. Their International Global Marketing division has greatly contributed to the league expanding to Latin America, Europe and Asia through various exhibition events, leveraging marquee foreign players, and developing key strategic global partners.

Moreover, the League tends to be opportunistic with moments like this one. Golden State and Cleveland are not exactly huge markets, and yet they have already strategically branded this Final as “James versus Curry.” James and Curry are 1-2 in jersey sales this season, while Curry edged James for the most All-Star votes. Between the two of them, they have been mentioned 28.8 million times since October on Twitter.

Steph Curry has endorsement deals with Under Armour, Degree and Muscle Milk to only name a few.
Steph Curry has endorsement deals with Under Armour, Degree and Muscle Milk to only name a few.

Both are marketing machines, as James has deals with Nike, Kia, Samsung, among several others, and has his own TV production company. Meanwhile Curry has become one of the most sought-after endorsers in the game today, as he has deals with Under Armour, Muscle Milk and Degree. The baby-faced 25-year-old has about a dozen endorsements that he didn’t have when he was left off last year’s All-Star team and is pulling in about $3.5 million a year off the court.

Simply put, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are the two best in the game today. For that reason alone, the NBA Finals matchup this year is special. On the surface, they are polar opposites: personality, playing style, their paths to this point. And yet here they are, pitted against each other on the game’s largest stage.

The NBA Finals Game 1 is on tonight … and you better believe, people will be watching.

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