“What’s up, everyone?”
That’s how Victor Wembanyama introduced himself the day before the NBA draft, when he conducted his first news conference before NBA media. But to talent evaluators, Wembanyama has already emerged as one of the top NBA prospects of a generation with his dominant play for a French professional team this season, and his tantalizing upside on the basketball court.
The 19-year-old, 7-foot-5 Frenchmen — who goes by “Wemby” — was selected with the first pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday night by the San Antonio Spurs, and the team could be set for a huge financial windfall from Wembanyama’s arrival.
The Spurs could see an increase of roughly $8 million-$10 million in season ticket sales, an added $5 million-$10 million in incremental ticket revenue from higher and dynamic pricing, and another $5 million-$10 million in corporate sponsorships, according to Dr. Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
“All told, the impact on team revenues in 2023-24 will likely be somewhere in the $20-$50 million range,” Rishe said, while adding that the Spurs may also be able to leverage Wembanyama’s arrival when negotiating its next local TV contract.
Another economics expert thinks Wembanyama’s financial impact on the Spurs could be even higher.
“$80 million a year to the Spurs for the next few years, that was roughly equal to the increase in revenues that we saw when LeBron James moved back from Miami to Cleveland,” Victor Matheson, economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross, told MarketWatch.
NBA first-round draft picks like Wembanyama sign a four-year contract upon entering the league. After that, the team that drafted the player has a significant edge in retaining him on his next contract because they are allowed to give him larger pay raises than any other club. Because of this, young players who turn into superstars rarely leave the teams that drafted them for the first seven years of their career, meaning Wembanyama could pay dividends to the Spurs in the hundreds of millions of dollars if he stays with the team.
While the Spurs are not for sale, some think Wembanyama’s presence alone will increase that value of the team, which was roughly $2 billion as of 2022 (or 20th in the NBA).
“I suspect that just the cachet of having this player on your team would be the sort of thing that would entice an owner potentially to pay more for the team, because owners in sports aren’t just about dollars and cents, they’re about dollars and cents, and the prestige and the ego that go along with owning an NBA franchise,” said Matheson.
The NBA has complex revenue sharing agreements among teams to help level the financial playing field between the small-market and big-market teams. Because of this agreement, not every dollar Wembanyama makes for the Spurs goes directly to the team.
So it’s clear that Wembanyama could provide a major financial boost for the Spurs. But his immediate impact on the NBA overall might seem small, considering the league made over $10 billion last year, according to Statista. But another area where Wembanyama could help the NBA in a huge way is by unlocking a new audience for NBA games: France.
“A guy like him can certainly open up new markets for you. So obviously, we have had top players from France before like Tony Parker, but this might be maybe a level beyond that,” Matheson said. “And if you could open up a 60 million person country, and all of a sudden make the NBA must-see TV in Paris and not just in the United States, that’s where you can really generate a lot.”
Matheson compared Wembanyama’s arrival to that of China’s Yao Ming coming into the NBA, and Japan’s baseball star Ichiro Suzuki’s arrival in the MLB, which both opened up massive international markets that those leagues didn’t already have a big presence in.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that drafting Wembanyama could add as much as $500 million to the value of an NBA franchise.
But some sports industry experts see Wembanyama’s impact as more muted, noting the possibility that he maybe doesn’t live up to the incredible hype, as well as the limitations of San Antonio’s smaller market size compared to cities like New York.
“This could be a significant turning point for the fortunes of the Spurs, both on and off the court, but it is worth remembering that players are different ‘assets’ than, say, arenas,” Michael Leeds, professor of economics and director of graduate studies at Temple University, told MarketWatch. “There is a lot of uncertainty among even top picks.”
He recalled how Sam Bowie was chosen ahead of Michael Jordan during the 1984 draft, yet Jordan became a superstar, while Bowie did not have much of a basketball career. “A player’s career can be derailed for a lot of reasons,” Leeds added. “I do not think that Wembanyama will have that much of an immediate impact on the financial fortunes of the Spurs.”
The Spurs are also hurt by their market size in San Antonio, which some say limits their financial upside compared to a bigger market like New York or Los Angeles. San Antonio is the 24th biggest TV market (out of 30) among NBA teams, according to Sports Media Watch.
“The San Antonio market is small and has demographics that generally don’t support the NBA,” Emory University marketing professor Michael Lewis told MarketWatch. “There are markets that could benefit greatly from a generational talent, but the Spurs seem unlikely.”
“It helps the franchise but over the long run players move from place to place,” added Sal Galatioto, the president of Galatioto Sports Partners, who has facilitated over 30 sales of professional sports teams — including the sale of the Golden State Warriors in 2010. “Players get hurt. Players aren’t as good as you think they are.”
Galatioto cited the recent sale of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets at a $3 billion valuation as evidence that franchise appraisals are getting higher, and not much of that increase is based on what happens on the court.
“When was the last time Charlotte won anything?” he asked.