I promise I'll get to Jason Collins in a minute. Let me set it up first.
There's a new trend in the NBA that's helping jump-start franchises that have lost or need a new identity. I call it "ownership marketing."
It started with the Brooklyn Nets. Brett Yormark explained it clearly at a Bloomberg Sports Summit panel last month as making it a matter of "brand" before "product." When Nets moved to two summers ago, their star players were unsigned. They had no idea what the product on the floor would look like. Yet relying on their brand of the Planet of Brooklyn (tip of the hat to Chuck D) and the part owner Jay Z, they sold over half season tickets before they or the ticket buyers knew product on the floor. Not to mention everybody knows Jay Z consulted heavily on the Nets going black, which has vaulted them from the bottom of league apparel sales to the very top. Brand superseded product, succeeding independently.
The brand before product lesson was learned well by Vivek Ranadive, the new owner of the moribund, negatively identified Sacramento Kings. A couple weeks ago he gave part (small part) ownership to Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq gave the Kings immediate identity, which was basketball credibility, which is what the citizens of Sacramento wanted in a big way. Who plays for the Kings anyway? Who cares. Whoever it is, Shaq has promised to be hands on, training players. In Mark Cuban-esque fashion he'll be the front man -- say funny things, provoke opponents, use his mastery of twitter to charm and manhandle the media. The Kings now have instant brand recognition. Ranadive can get India, but Shaq can get the world. Shaq is a global brand, and now so are the Kings.
Then last week it happened again in Toronto. Drake, the chart-topping rapper and native Torontonian was anointed special "ambassador" for the Raptors. Okay he's not an owner, but his "partnership," let's call it, is all about re-branding a team that is lacking any star quality on which to hang a brand identity. The Drake partnership is a little more layered than the other two, but equally brilliant. The Raptors are capturing a cultural moment in Toronto. This year's NBA draft and next year's will feature number one picks (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins) who come from Toronto. They come from the same Toronto, and it's the Toronto of Drake. It's the Toronto of Jane and Finch. Don't know Jane and Finch? That's okay. Torontonians do, especially those that understand the new generation of Toronto that finds basketball more accessible, affordable and aspirational than hockey. Like NWA did for Al Davis (wearing Raiders gear, making it a national apparel phenomenon) when the Raiders camped out in Los Angeles, Drake can do for the Raptors. Who plays for the Raptors -- who is their product? Right now it doesn't matter. It's about Drake and what that co-brand of him and team represents.
So how does this help Jason Collins, the first gay male athlete in any of the three major North American leagues -- NFL, MLB, NBA -- to come out while still active but has yet to be signed by any NBA team with season about to begin? Well, reports have it that teams say they would sign him but his high but veteran-minimum $1.4 million salary costs too much when they can get younger player who is perceived to be a player of equal or slightly less than value for around $500,000. It's strictly business, nothing to do with his sexual orientation.
So here's my solution: What if an owner gave Collins an equity ownership stake in the team equivalent to a few hundred thousand dollars in lieu of his full $1.4 million. It would be a small non-impacting ownership piece -- like Jay Z or Shaq -- and it would automatically revert back to majority ownership for fair market value upon the end of Collin's one-year contract. If the NBAPA has any rules conflicting with this, they could make an exception for what everyone seems to say is a socially desirable result, that is having the first gay active male athlete play a full season with everyone knowing he's gay. One could see a few teams with whom this arrangement could work both for off off-court brand and on-court product. For example, what if the Boston Celtics -- a team that's young and rebuilding, with a new young brainy coach, a politically progressive city surrounded by socially progressive university communities -- were to take on Collins as an owner-player? They could swing it. And think of the spending power of the national gay community -- not just gay basketball fans, but the entire gay community purchasing the symbolically significant Jason Collins "98" (in memory of the year Matthew Shepherd was murdered). Is that bad business? Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela, Billy Jean King -- each socially progressive moment had to be supported by a financially sound justification. I'm offering one here for Jason Collins.