The NBA Plays Baseball

Let me begin by assuring you non-sports fans out there, that despite the fact that this is the second sports-analogy-laden edition of this newsletter in a row, this should in no way be considered a trend. I simply wanted to follow-up on our discussion last time about Michael Jordan’s difficulties in making the transition from basketball to baseball, and as it turns out, the “switching sports” metaphor does a pretty good job of capturing what companies are going through in adapting to the web.

Let’s consider what would happen if every team in the National Basketball Association were told that within three years, they would all be forced to play baseball exclusively.

Imagine how different people involved would react:

COACHES: With three years remaining before the switch, some coaches would begin incorporating a little bit of batting practice into their training. Some would switch over completely to a baseball-centric focus. Still others would no doubt ignore the new sport entirely, sticking instead with the drills, techniques and strategies which brought them success in the past. One thing’s for sure, the coach who won the championship last season would be much more reluctant to see the rules change than would the coach whose team finished dead last or the coach of a newly formed expansion team with no track record at all.

PLAYERS: I’d bet that the players fresh out of college would have a much easier time changing than those with several years of experience. When the rules change radically, experience can serve to be more of a liability than an asset, and it’s not hard to imagine the veteran players — in addition to being embarrassed about once again being beginners — simply being unable to separate out the essence of what makes them successful (i.e. their pure athletic skills), and apply this to a different sport.

OWNERS: You guessed it, here too the new teams would generally evolve the fastest. With no expectation of immediate success from their financial backers, no existing season ticket holders to cater to, and no legacy asset base of basketball uniforms and equipment needing to be retrofitted to work for baseball, the owners of the new teams would probably just switch everything over to baseball immediately, knowing that in three years time that’s where the world would end up anyway.

Substitute the Internet for batting practice, web start-ups for expansion teams, and legacy billing systems for basketball uniforms and equipment, and you may see a lot of similarities between what we’ve been talking about here and how your company is dealing with the web. Whether it’s sports or business, many of the same rules, reactions, biases and fears will apply.

Discussion Questions:

1. In the scenario we just described, If you were going to bet long term on a team to win the league championship in five years, would you bet on a young team or an established one? If you answered “young,” then is it so hard to understand how Internet start ups with no revenue, no customers, and shaky business models are able to go public and see their stock prices soar? (Incidentally, if you answered “established,” to the question above, then we’re simply going to have to ask you to pay more attention to what we’re trying to say here.)

2. Do you think a switch to baseball would increase or decrease the Celtic’s chances of making the playoffs?

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