How should a league incentivize star athletes to show up to perform?
Given recent news out of the NBA on “load management,” I figured this is an opportune time to ponder this question and how it relates to the golf world. It is a question most major sports leagues are facing.
Consider some of the variables at play for the three following leagues: the NFL, the PGA Tour, and the NBA.
The NFL has a 17-game season which determines eligibility for the NFL Playoffs. Every game in the season matters. With only 17 games, one loss has a significant bearing on a team’s chances of making the postseason. Plus, obtaining home field advantage in the Playoffs is a significant advantage and is determined by teams’ regular season performance. Another crucial variable in the NFL is that the vast majority of players’ compensation is not guaranteed. If you stop showing up for practices and games, you stop receiving checks.
The pinnacle of the sport is the Super Bowl, and every game played has a meaningful impact on one’s chances of making the Super Bowl. Thus, the incentive structure is clean. Teams need to win games. Teams need all of their players to show up to win games. Players need to show up to get paid. And barring injury, it’s within reason for a player to compete in all 17 games. Getting the stars to show up to perform is typically not a problem.
The PGA Tour is different. The pinnacles of the sport are major championships. As long as a player has qualified for a major championship, he has the same chance of winning the tournament as every other player in the field. Every player tees off on Thursday in the same starting position because majors are real competitions. So if you’ve qualified for all of the major championships, what’s the incentive to show up for the rest of the schedule? Of course, money is an incentive. You also need to play enough competitive golf to stay in form and retain status so that you will qualify for major championships.
But unlike competing in the NFL, playing the full PGA Tour season is not possible. Tournaments run just about every weekend from January through August. The physical toll of competing and traveling every single weekend is not worth the reward. If I told you that competing in the Mexico Open might give you a five percent chance of starting the Tour Championship nine strokes behind the leader instead of ten strokes behind the leader, would you fly to Mexico on the heels of Torrey-Pebble-Phoenix-Riviera in consecutive weeks? Probably not. You’d likely say, “Eh, I can make up a stroke with one putt in Atlanta, and I don’t care about the Tour Championship anyway. I’ll skip.” The PGA Tour has an incentive problem. Though the 2024 “Signature Event” model is a step towards solving the problem, the problem remains far from solved.
The NBA has an incentive problem too. Each NBA team plays an 82-game schedule which determines eligibility for the Playoffs. Medical professionals can reasonably debate whether or not it is physically safe for an NBA player to play all 82 games, but it seems as though many medical staffs are deciding against it. Moreover, NBA players’ contracts are guaranteed, so sitting out a game does not meaningfully impact a player’s earnings. Skipping a few games in an 82-game season is much less likely to lower a team’s chances of winning the NBA Finals than if an NFL star sat out an NFL game or two. In this sense, the NBA is like the PGA Tour.
Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James on the sideline of an NBA game
Given this confluence of factors, NBA stars have been sitting out a bunch of games. They rest during the Mexico Opens. From a fan’s perspective, imagine saving money to take your kids to see LeBron James or Steph Curry play and they decide to rest instead of competing. This happens all the time, and it is bad for both the fans and for the league.
On Monday, Shams Charania broke the news that the NBA is expected to vote on mandating that a team cannot rest two physically able stars during a game. This stipulation does not solve the problem entirely, but it is a signal that the NBA is working to address this issue. It’s a hard problem to solve. Frankly, I’m not sure that the NBA can solve this issue without drastically reducing the number of games on the schedule, and I highly doubt it makes sense financially to reduce the game load. Sound familiar?
Aligning incentives so that stars show up to perform is imperative across sports leagues. For most leagues, the schedule and compensation structure determines the extent to which it is an issue. Next season on the PGA Tour, we’ll see how well the Signature Event model solves the problem. Will all of the top stars show up to all of the Signature Events?
Generally speaking, I am skeptical of any system that mandates an athlete’s participation. The Player Impact Program mandated showing up to all but one designated event in 2023. Rory McIlroy decided to skip two anyway, suffered the financial consequences, and still had a strong chance of winning the Tour Championship entering the event. I don’t think he regrets his decision. Ideally, a system is designed intelligently so that reaching the pinnacle of the league is desirable, and incentives are aligned so that players opt in to participating.
Eventually, everyone will realize the value of reducing the number of spots in the Tour Championship to eight to 12 players and converting the format to match play. A match play final would be so exciting that qualifying for and participating in the event would be prestigious. It would rival major championships in terms of fan intrigue. Importantly, the consequences of skipping regular season events would steepen with only 8-12 Tour Championship spots up for grabs. This is the path to incentive alignment. In the meantime, there will be a bunch of inefficient conversations in Ponte Vedra boardrooms about getting the stars to show up and perform. There will probably be some conversations in adjacent boardrooms about why nobody is watching the Tour Championship. Hopefully they realize both problems can be solved in one fell swoop.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.