Sunday, May 20, 2007

Russian women's basketball toy

I came across a fascinating article about the WNBA yesterday. Admittedly, this is the first time that has ever happened, and my interest was piqued early on by a Russian women's basketball team owner named Shabtai von Kalmanovic, pictured right. He is referred to as the "Mark Cuban of Russian Basketball"... only if Cuban had ties to African diamond trafficking and spying for the former Soviet Union.

Either way, this guy is quite a character. Incredibly wealthy from a construction business in Africa, von Kalmanovic owns Spartak, a women's team in Russia and employs the likes of well-known American women's players Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird (no relation to Larry), both WNBA players. The crazy thing is, Bird makes makes four times as much in Russia as she does in the WNBA, and Taurasi makes 10 times as much in Russia as she does in the WNBA. Even with basketball easily playing a third hand in the U.S. to football and baseball, and even with women's basketball usually getting second-class citizen status among basketball fans, surely the U.S. could afford to pay more to players than a team that plays winters in Russia and all over Europe and parts of Asia, right?

Here's the catch: von Kalmanovic doesn't seem concerned with making money off the team. With loads of cash to throw around, von Kalmanovic estimates that his expenses for the season will be $5-6 million. They don't charge money for tickets to games (of which they average a measly 3,000 in attendance per game), they pay to have their games televised, and pay for travel among other expenses. He basically makes no money from owning the team. He compares it likes this:
"I have friends who go to casinos," von Kalmanovic said. "I know friends who risk on the stock exchange. I am Lithuanian — for me, basketball is everything. It is a hobby, a pleasure, a casino, whatever you want."

Completely contrary to virtually every other model of team ownership, von Kalmanovic basically holds his team as a toy. With the WNBA having a relatively short season and an incredibly restrictive salary cap based upon years of service, the opportunity for the top women's players is too great to pass up. In what adds up to no salary cap, owners such as von Kalmanovic can basically pay to have the best players in the world come play for them during the winter, often putting them up in a nice place to live and providing attractive amenities.

At the end of the article, von Kalmanovic talks about him and his fellow owners sitting down and agreeing on maximum salaries for players because "it becomes too much." We'll see how he likes it when another owner steals a player he covets because she likes the area the team plays in better than his own and he isn't able to pay more to draw her to Moscow because of the maximum salary limit.

The point to all this is that it really is quite amazing that an independently wealthy basketball fan basically just throws all the BS to the wind and strives to put together a toy that performs very, very well. Can you imagine a rich American basketball fan who didn't want to deal with the mess of purchasing an NBA team and instead opted to pay significant salaries to players who marginally miss NBA rosters and dominate through a league like the CBA or ABA? With little concern for profits, someone like that could make a lot of waves and could essentially build up their toy to win through a league full of spares as they wish. Mark Cuban, are you listening?

Reasonably yours,

E-mail us