What Kind of Financial Impact Will Zion Williamson Have on the NBA?

Lebron James, Mike Trout, Alexander Ovechkin and Patrick Mahomes are just a few names that come to mind when asked the following question: “Who would you consider to be a once-in-a-generation talent from YOUR era?”. A sports fan could easily mention one of the above names and find little resistance from the inquiring party. There are also probably a dozen or two other names that could be brought up who would also be tough to argue against. Patrick Mahomes deserves an asterisk because it’s still very early in his career, but having set numerous records and already with a Super Bowl MVP on his resume it’s a pretty safe bet (if he stays healthy) his numbers will be among the all-time greats. Whether you hate Lebron or love him you cannot deny that he is not only a once-in-a-generation player, he’s one of the greatest basketball players to ever walk the face of the earth. Period. As these uber talents start to wind down their respective careers they make way for a new breed of history-worthy players. Enter Zion Williamson. Only 10 gamss into his NBA career, the Duke alum is off to a record-breaking start and there’s not sign of him slowing down anytime soon.

Record-Setting Start

Everyone knew Zion was special. If you watched him play at Duke you watched a man play against boys. He was so distinctly special it was quite easy to predict he’d find success in the NBA almost immediately. Prior to the All-Star break Zion put up 32 and 31 points respectively against the Thunder and Trail Blazers. Over the course of the week prior to the break he was averaging a point a minute. For those of you keeping score at home that’s 28 points in 28 minutes. Pretty efficient for a rookie. At the moment, Zion is the only player over the last 30 years to score 20 points in 7 of his first 9 games. Two other players did it in 7 of their first 10 games – Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill. His productivity over 10 games is remarkable enough to have pundits talking about him winning Rookie of the Year… after missing the first three months of the season! As the NBA resumes play after the All-Star break it’s not inconceivable to think the Pelicans could make a run at the playoffs and Zion could steal the Rookie of the Year from Ja Morant.

Changing the Game

Once-in-a-generation players change the game. They elevate the game to another level and they also elevate the way players get paid to another level. Of all professional sports leagues in the United States the NBA has one of the steepest pay grade. During the 2019-2020 season there are 20 players making over $30 million per year. By comparison there are 7 such players in Major League Baseball, and 6 players over that threshold in the NFL. If you’re keeping notes at home, there are no players above $20 million in the NHL. Of course, there are other factors at play here implemented by the league, which is where things could hamper Zion Williamson. The NBA has what is called a “Super Max Contract“, which allows teams to pay a player NO more than 35% of the salary cap. At present the salary cap is roughly $99 million. There are a few other details that allow players to go above 35% each year they are with a team, but this is a good start when discussing Zion Williamson’s financial impact on the NBA. The fact of the matter is Zion isn’t the only young superstar in the league i.e. the aforementioned Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, etc. Basically, there is a crop of young players in the NBA that are ultimately going to drive revenue and push the salary cap higher every time it’s available to be negotiated.

Are You Not Entertained?

The overall impact that Zion Williamson and his fellow young superstars are going to have on the NBA’s finances is going to be dramatic. In a similar way that Lebron took NBA vierwership to another level over the past 16 years, it’s within reason to think Zion will have a similar impact for many reasons. 1.) the guy is flat-out marketable. His name is Zion! How cool is that? He’s also a physical specimen that weighs more than most defensive ends. Most importantly, he has a good head on his shoulders. If he can stay healthy and walk the line he can easily carry the torch Lebron has held for the past decade and a half. 2.) The guy is entertaining! One NBA executive when discussing the league ratings being down said, “the league does need him”. Why? Because he’s an entertainer. If you’re reading this you can relate because you probably watched more Duke basketball games than you ever have in your life last year. Casual fans will put on the TV to see if they can catch Zion be Zion. Plain and simple, it is players like Zion that put people in the seats and get people to watch televised games. The NBA will reap the benefits.

It is an interesting case study when talking about once-in-a-generation talent. These individuals put up stats, they win championships (most of the time) and they attract fans to not only watch but to buy merchandise. It’s the financial impact on their respective leagues that we easily underestimate. Lebron James’ latest contract will ultimately put him over $1 billion in career earnings in the NBA. There is little doubt that his impact on the NBA’s financial health is well beyond that number. It’s also within reason to think the Zion Williamson will have a similar impact.


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