What Mark Cuban Is Missing on the Olympics

The outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner has a point: why should free labor help Olympic committees, broadcasters, and sponsors get rich? But the Olympics boosts the NBA's bottom line, too.

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Mike Stone / Reuters

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban reacts during the second half of Dallas' NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Dallas, Texas on April 2, 2012.

When the London Olympics begin on July 27, don’t expect Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to be waving an American flag. In an interview with Foxsports.com, the outspoken Cuban called the current Olympic basketball system, in which NBA players compete on Team USA for free, “the biggest mistake the NBA makes.” He continued:

“If you look up stupid in the dictionary, you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make millions of dollars. If you come up with something that you own, that you give it to me for free so I can make billions of dollars, I want it.

“And it has nothing to do with patriotism. It’s all about money. You don’t see the Olympic Committee saying, ‘Oh we made so much money. Let’s give it to people.”’

Cuban indicated that NBA owners should be compensated for releasing their valuable assets to Team USA. He makes a strong point about economic fairness: Why should Cuban’s employees help enrich the U.S. Olympic Committee, NBC, and all the other corporate sponsors at the Games, while he’s not getting any of that cash?

(MORE: The Mavs’ Big Winner: Mark Cuban’s New Image)

It’s a compelling argument, but it misses one important point. The Olympic basketball tournament is, in essence, an NBA marketing extravaganza. The league’s players receive global exposure, and the benefits of this exposure accrue back to the NBA and its teams. So the Olympics, in effect, are helping boost the bottom lines of Cuban and his fellow owners.

It’s no accident that the NBA’s revenues exploded after the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when the original Dream Tream of NBA legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird captivated the world. After Barcelona, more kids in Europe and Asia turned to basketball, more international players joined the NBA, and basketball became a truly global game. Every four years, the Olympics at least help maintain that economic momentum.

Fox columnist Greg Couch brought up this point to Cuban, who essentially dismissed it.

“How much has that accomplished for us? … If we’d had a bunch of kids out there like the (1980) Miracle on Ice, that didn’t take any pros to make that special. And here we are 18 years later, 20 years later from the Dream Team basically, right? Trust me, 7-foooters before the Dream Team” – he nodded back at [Dirk] Nowitzki – “he wasn’t going to be a bicyclist. He wasn’t going to be a tennis player.”

Nowitzki’s dad was a pro handball player, so he might have stuck with that sport. But more to the point: If basketball would have gone global without the Dream Team, as Cuban suggests, why weren’t there more international players in the NBA before 1992? Hoops had been around for years.

Cuban’s comments – and those of Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, who have recently argued that NBA players should be paid for playing in the Olympics – have ignited an important debate about Olympic fairness, and exposed the facade of the amateur ideal. But contrary to what Cuban says, participation in the Olympics is far from “the biggest  mistake the NBA makes.”

We’ve got the Charlotte Bobcats for that.

(MORE: Cheapskate Wisdom From … Billionaire Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban)