3 Reasons Ice Cube's New 3 on 3 League Won't Work (and 3 more why it might)

By JimMcilvaine
Dec. 24, 2016

Ice Cube has announced he's throwing his hat into the professional basketball ring, which 30 NBA team owners have found to be exceptionally lucrative. What other franchise operation pretty much guarantees a profit to even the worst-run organization? However, just because the NBA makes it look easy, does that mean Ice Cube's new league will be able to make a go of it? Here's three reasons why it won't work and three more why it might-

1. The NBA owns pro basketball in this country. Sure, there are other "pro" basketball leagues in this country, but the NBA has done a pretty good job throughout their existence of owning the product of pro basketball in this country. Just ask the ABA, CBA and the IBL (don't you need at least one team outside the US to use "International" in your name?). David Stern even fired up the WNBA to shut down the ABA/WABA start-ups from getting in on pro hoops for women. That league had bled money (or hides NBA revenue, depending on your perspective) from day one, but it keeps any challengers from even getting their foot in the door. When Isiah Thomas thought he pulled a fast one on the NBA and intended to "flip" the CBA over to them after paying just $10 million for it, the NBA decided to start the NBDL, effectively signing the death warrant for the CBA.

That doesn't stop folks from trying, but competing against the NBA in this country has proven to be about as lucrative as owning a fleet of Yugos. If you want to do something fun, Google "womens american basketball association" and look at the second result announcing that league starting up (again) in August of 2016. They ran out of money so fast, they couldn't even keep the domain operating through the end of the year!

2. Basketball is a different kind of business than acting or rapping. It seems like you can't swing a dead cat in pro sports without hitting someone's "clothing line" or "record label." While a handful of those enterprises can make a go of it, the vast majority end up...well, like the clothing or musical versions of the Continental Basketball Association. The real players in those industries don't even pay attention to these upstarts, because they know they're virtually all flashes in the pan and any that can survive the start-up gauntlet can always be acquired at a later date, if they prove themselves to be worthwhile investments. Most of the athletes bankrolling those ventures couldn't sit through a one-hour episode of The Profit without checking their phones a dozen or more times. They definitely don't have the business stamina to navigate income statements and balance sheets on a regular basis. When Ice Cube needs to be on set for Ride Along 3 and network executives want to meet with him about the upcoming 3 on 3 season, which one will get priority?

3. The basketball talent pool may be very shallow. Anyone remember the NBA All-Star Legends game? The NBA tried to put together just two teams for just a single game and on paper, it sounded fantastic- Rick Barry, Hot Rod Hundley, Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Bobby Jones, Calvin Murphy all on the same court?!? That's going to be awesome...until it isn't. The final score of the last Legends All-Star Game was 58-45 and that was the first time in the last four years both teams scored at least 40 points. They were taking it easy for sure, but guys were still blowing out Achilles tendons and tearing an assortment of other ligaments and tendons before those games mercifully came to an end in 1993.

If the NBA couldn't make a go of it once a year with 20 of the greatest players to ever lace up high tops, what makes Ice Cube think he'll be able to do it now for a full season with 40 retired players? Now that the NBPA offers lifetime health insurance benefits for many former players, injury coverage may be less of a concern, but who would actually agree to play in these games? Selling this league to a television network will be critical in terms of making the league financially viable. Programming executives won't be salivating with line-ups of Jim McIlvaine, Marty Conlon and Kevin Edwards. They'll need former All-Stars to get TV even remotely interested, but will enough of those names sign on to fill out at least a good portion of the five-man rosters on eight different teams?

A casual look at a trip like the one Charles Smith organized to North Korea will show the types of players who sign up for this sort of thing- a lot of guys who weren't good listeners when they were in the NBA, especially when it came to heeding sound financial advice. The rosters often (but not always) end up being a who's who of guys who have run out of money. The smart guys took care of their money and know the physical risks of trying to play basketball at an advanced age and I would suggest doubling someone's actual age to understand how old they are in "basketball years." Keeping just one team of these players organized and on-time is daunting enough for one game or overseas trip. Will Ice Cube's league be able to keep all these cats wrangled and healthy for an entire season?

That all makes it sound like this new league is destined for disaster and that very well may be the case. However, there are some factors that could play in it's favor and could make the league an incredible success.

1. Content is king and this could be unique & engaging. ESPN already televises poker games and drone racing. If people will watch that stuff on a "sports" channel, why is it so hard to believe they'd watch three on three basketball? This isn't exactly uncharted waters either. I don't know if this was ever discussed publicly, but when the NBA owners locked the players out in 1999, there were plans quickly coming together for one on one games in Las Vegas. The concept there was very similar to boxing, except it was basketball. Several undercard matches in various classes, followed by the main event. One prominent Las Vegas casino was ready to make it happen and also more than happy to take bets on the outcome in their sportsbook. At the end of the day, networks are scrambling to offer unique content and a three on three league may offer such an opportunity at a fairly reasonable production price.

2. Ice Cube already has commitments from some "name" players. If getting the big names involved is the key to making this thing work from a TV contract and sponsorship standpoint, Ice Cube has already secured commitments from Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal, Rashard Lewis and at least one of the Williams named Jayson or Jason (the story on CBSSports.com links to the football one). Now, mixed into that group there may already be a guy, who in spite of all the money he made in the NBA, may have since fallen on hard times. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be highly-motivated to get a paycheck from this venture, but that other former players in similar financial circumstances seemed to be less than reliable, when offered such an opportunity in their post-NBA life. Things change too and commitments made now may not necessarily translate into reality when it comes time for shoes to hit the hardwood

3. Roger Mason Jr. has left the NBPA to partner on this league. While Ice Cube's knowledge of the business of basketball may be somewhat limited, he has convinced the National Basketball Players' Association's Deputy Executive Director, Roger Mason, Jr., to leave what has to be considered a very cush gig with the NBPA, to help make this league a reality. Mason's knowledge of the business of basketball certainly helps make up for any shortcomings Ice Cube may have had in this regard and could help open doors and keep them open, en route to making this league financially viable.

Mason seems like a pretty sharp guy and he had to be making a healthy six-figure salary with the NBPA. With a new CBA about to be inked with the league and the union already set up in their new digs, there couldn't have been much heavy lifting that needed to be done in his position over the next several years. One would think Mason must see this opportunity as a safe move with a huge upside, in order to compel him to leave the NBPA. Then again, maybe he recognized an opportunity to exit the union before the financial impact of the NBPA's new offices hit home with players and someone started asking why it was such a good idea to agree to a 20-year lease at over $3 million per year, when they owned their previous offices and sold them for six times what they paid for them in 2007. 

So will Ice Cube's league be successful? I think there are three good reasons it won't and three good reasons it will. Ultimately, I think if there were weighting added to these considerations, reason #1 against it's success will probably make it very difficult for this basketball league or any other non NBA-sanctioned league to make it in this country.