Tuesday, September 20, 2016

At All Costs: The Business of the AAU

NBA bench-warmers making the league minimum are an exclusive club. Plays earning anything above that are even more elite. That means there just are not very many of them. It is not a practical life plan, yet tens of thousands high school and junior high kids pursue their elusive hoop dreams through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Eclipsing prep rankings in importance, the AAU has become a recruitment machine, but it does not necessarily serve the best interests of the kids or the game. Mike Nicoll takes viewers inside the AAU system in At All Costs (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

During the summer, Parker Jackson-Cartwright is on the road non-stop playing in AAU tournaments. College coaches rarely bother scouting high school games anymore, so if he wants to get noticed, the AAU is his only option. Critics argue it turns players into hotdogs, showing off their skills at the expense of the team. Defenders basically say that’s life.

Etop Udo-Ema is the founder and CEO of the Compton Magic, which sounds like a bizarrely lofty title for an amateur kids team. Yet, Udo-Ema has indeed built an empire, including four distinct squads that are always on the road. He can offer his players something that they can’t get with every AAU team: corporate sponsorship courtesy of Adidas. In this business, the power of shoe company clout cannot be overstated. Udo-Ema talks a good game and he seems to follow through with his players and alumni more than many AAU coaches, but he always sounds like he is selling the Compton Magic brand, because he is.

Watching Jackson-Cartwright and his future agent father play the AAU game will send many viewers into culture shock. It is literally a full time pursuit for them. Yet, it remains highly speculative. If someone suggested to AAU parents their time, effort, and expenses would be better invested in tutoring that would prepare their kids for an advanced STEM degree at a leading university, they might be scoffed at for being square, but the payoff would be far more certain, without any risk of injury. Unfortunately, that latter point will indeed become an issue for the Jackson-Cartwrights.

For those uninitiated in the AAU system, All Costs is truly eye-opening stuff. Nicoll never takes sides nor does he shield the league from unflattering moments. As a result, it is hard to argue with Kobi Bryant’s shoot-from-the-hip criticisms. From what we see, the AAU is grossly misnamed. These kids function as professionals, not amateurs. Strictly speaking, they do participate in athletics, but the league appears more concerned with PR and sponsorship. Unions used to imply solidarity, but since they are now more about featherbedding, we can give them the “U.” Recommended for fans of the sort of in-depth reporting Bernard Goldberg does on HBO’s Real Sports, At Any Cost is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.