the hot month of July representing vacation time, leisure pursuits and travel
for many people, it means the start of recruiting for the 2005 season for
college basketball coaches across the country, and that means AAU basketball
takes its place front and center throughout that month.
Many people are partially familiar with the concept of AAU (Amateur
Athletic Union) athletics, since
AAU is instrumental in the lives of many young athletes growing up, in various
sports and localities. Only in basketball does AAU become such a large monster,
currently consuming recruiting and giving AAU coaches and programs much more
influence than the NCAA would like.
That influence primarily takes the form of the major shoe companies. What had
been a two-horse race, with Adidas and Nike each being the thousand-pound
gorilla, has now become a tri-headed creature, with Reebok joining the sphere of
influence. The three shoe companies exert great influence over the spring and
summer, and thus AAU basketball, as the better traveling AAU teams are funded by
rivaling shoe companies that are anxious to bring into their fold the latest
young phenom, even if that phenom is only in the sixth grade.
The NCAA has taken a position that they would like to greatly limit the
influence of AAU basketball, while not quite ready to start a huge turf war with
the shoe companies, since advertising dollars and money directly or indirectly
fills the coffers of the NCAA. College coaches are forced to see ever-changing
recruiting rules, as the NCAA tries to come up with a formula that addresses
their goal of having more influence in the hands of parents and high schools,
and not as much in the hands of AAU coaches and programs, while still limiting
the amount of contact that high school students and their families have with
college coaches and recruiters. Itís a tricky high-wire act to walk and many
of the recent recruiting changes have been made with limiting the AAU influence
as a priority.
What the NCAA has done in recent years is to limit the amount of AAU events
that are sanctioned by the NCAA. This is an effort to try and condense the
number of events that the NCAA recognizes, along with limiting the time that
such events are sanctioned. To sanction an event simply means that the event is
one that college coaches can attend, and thus evaluate prospects at the event.
College coaches are not allowed to attend non-sanctioned AAU events, and the
recent legislation by the NCAA pertaining to information and principles that
must be in place for an event to be sanctioned, have been designed to eliminate
many events in the spring and summer that are sanctioned. The NCAA has made
progress in this arena, but by doing so, has limited the amount of days and time
that college coaches are allowed at these events.
Giving college coaches less time, rather than more time, to attend summer and
spring events, will more than likely result in more recruiting mistakes being
made, as coaches will be forced to make more decisions with less information to
base those decisions on. This not only affects the institution, and the dollar
figure that might be attached to awarding an athletic scholarship to any
prospective student/athlete, but also affects the student himself, as they might
find themselves in situations where they are not a good match or fit for the
The AAU situation has been growing for many years now, cultivated by the NCAA
decision to largely neglect or fail to police the spring and summer activities.
Now that the NCAA has decided to step in and try and exert control, many people
are left to wonder if that is possible at such a late stage, and with how
ingrained and powerful AAU and the major shoe companies have become. This is the
issue that the NCAA faces and it will be a very difficult struggle to assume
control of a process that might be too large an albatross to harness.
AAU basketball has grown in popularity because of the obvious advantages it
affords high school athletes, that being competition for four months at the
conclusion of the high school season, and now the perks provided by shoe
companies. With countries all across the world training and coaching their high
school-age players 12 months a year, it is no wonder the basketball gap has
greatly narrowed between the U.S. and other countries. Add the fact that current
NCAA legislation doesnít allow for division-one college basketball programs to
work out their own athletes in the off-season, and you have a situation where
seemingly every basketball playing country is making inroads on American
basketball, historically the frontrunner and acknowledged leader in basketball.
AAU basketball has aligned itself loosely and forged a partnership with the
shoe companies, always looking to entice their next client into the fold and
market the next style of Kobe or LeBron shoes, or whoever the hot new force in
basketball becomes. The shoe companies saw an avenue early on to ingratiate
themselves with young basketball players, while AAU programs were all too happy
to accept the free merchandise and discretionary funds that come from competing
This process starts at a very early age and will consist of the leading AAU
programs aligning themselves with one or the other of the shoe companies, or
three now that Reebok has entered the fray. The better and more successful AAU
teams will garner major money from the shoe companies, thus becoming a very
powerful force, being able to become a more enticing avenue for the better
prospects to sign up with.
Last year, pre-Reebok joining the battle, it was widely known that the top
traveling teams in each shoe companies stable were given $6,000 in apparel and
$4,000 in discretionary funds. These top level programs can easily entice the
better prospects into their fold by limiting the amount of out-of-pocket
expenses that families have to incur, always a significant factor, since many of
the mom and pop run AAU teams have to rely on parents chipping in money, along
with some sponsorship help that they might obtain. The shoe-company backed
programs donít have this problem and can give out free apparel and shoes, and
while this doesnít entice every young kid, it does entice some, especially
those who are economically deprived.
Furthermore, those major funds have only grown this year with Reebok entering
the landscape. The new Reebok CEO, Sonny Vaccaro, was the former head of Adidas
and that ante was upped by Adidas, in a pre-emptive move, to try and keep their
main traveling teams to stay under the Adidas logo. The apparel allowance was
raised to $12,000 and the discretionary fund allowance became $8,000, as Adidas
didnít want to lose their better programs to newcomer Reebok. This turf war
will change and alter the landscape of grassroots basketball, and it is yet to
be determined how different that exactly will be, with this being the first
summer with a three party system, rather than the tried and true two party
system of past years.
The allure for the shoe companies in aligning themselves so heavily in
grassroots basketball is that it gives them far greater influence and a number
of loyal observers, in the form of their AAU team coaches and general managers,
who will steer the better young players in their direction. For every LeBron
James, who was a widely known name in AAU circles well before he emerged
nationally as a junior in high school, there is the next wave of outstanding
prospects that need to be locked up when they are of junior high age. The more
traveling AAU teams you have under your jurisdiction across the country, the
more each shoe company can cast its wide net for every possible future pro, thus
meaning more dollars and advertising power for the shoe companies.
With the spring and summer season calendar booked from April 1 to July 31,
playing a full event schedule means significant money and significant travel
funds, which only the well-funded top level AAU programs with shoe company
backing can afford. Add to that the now three shoe-sponsored camps in July,
which are all sanctioned by the NCAA, and you have a fierce battle to entice the
best high school prospects to your shoe camp in July, which is what seemingly
every coach and high school player is consumed by and judges their worth by.
NCAA basketball coaches can only stand by and wait for word from the NCAA
hierarchy on what changes will affect their summer recruiting, while having no
choice but to become bedmates with the AAU programs, since they control so much
of the flow of information that comes out of the summer. With the exception of
just a very small handful of programs like Duke, who can stay above the whole
scenario, the vast majority of college basketball programs must forge some type
of association with AAU basketball and programs, even though the NCAA seems
intent on trying to extinguish the AAU scene from its eyesight.
In the next installment of this series, we will look at that unlikely
association that college programs must take with AAU programs and what
advantages and disadvantages might ensue, depending on many factors.