One of the most common sports tropes you’ll hear is about “the contract year” performance of athletes. With the NFL free agency window opening today, you’ll hear a lot about how a player performed in the final year of their expiring contract.
My question is, what’s the incentive for teams to sign players to contracts beyond one year? If players elevate their performance to perform for a new contract, why give them a three or four year cushion where they can under-perform?
Time and time again, we hear about free agent signing where the player gets paid and then shuts it down. Albert Haynesworth is a prime example of this phenomenon. After being an outstanding player for the Tennessee Titans, Albert signed a record contract (Seven years for $100 million) with the Washington Redskins. After cashing in, in his first season with the Redskins, in 2009, Haynesworth recorded 37 tackles and only 4 sacks. The stats were bad enough, but to top it off, Albert showed up to training camp completely out of shape. He had gotten paid and had zero motivation to continue to perform at a high level.
Let’s say, instead of paying Albert all of that money, instead, the Redskins bought Albert for one year at $15 million. Would he have an incentive to continue to perform? Of course! While $15 million is more money than I’ll ever see, I expect Albert would be motivated to continue to work to cash that outsized paycheck. I know I would.
In the NBA this is a rampant phenomenon. Just yesterday I was listening to a radio interview with Donnie Nelson, GM of the Dallas Mavericks, where he discussed the benefit of having Zaza Pachulia in a “contract year.” Donnie explained how hard Zaza is working and that his, Zaza’s, numbers are exceeding expectations. So, why re-sign Zaza to an extension beyond 1 year? If you get max effort in a contract year, make every year a contact year.
Players work harder and apply more effort in their contract years, so why go beyond that? Neither the team, nor the players have any loyalty to each other. The only people silly enough to be loyal are fans. Players play for the greatest reward (money, championships, high profile, etc.) and teams want to keep fans coming to games. (If you thought I’d say teams want Championships, you don’t understand how business works). One year deals work well for everyone involved. If a player is unhappy, sign somewhere else. If a team is unhappy, they have no long term commitment to the player. Fans? Well, they just have to keep showing up and buying $12 beers.
I anticipate that a savvy GM will flip the system on it’s head and go for this model before too long. The NBA is going to be the proving ground, where some bottom-feeding team will trot out an entire roster of players on one-year deals . The team will exceed expectations since each player (and the coach) are playing for their next big payday. Boom, a new model is born. I’m surprised Bill Belicheat and the New England Cheatriots haven’t gone this route already.
What do you think? Will this work? Would you continue to support your team if the GM tried this model?