Caitlin Clark with the Indiana Fever during a June 10 game. Caitlin Clark with the Indiana Fever during a June 10 game. (David Butler II-USA Today Sports)

A crucial element of sports comes from the idea that outcomes are not predetermined, teams are trying their best, and the competition is generally “fair.” The lack of preordained outcomes is a notable distinction between sports and other forms of entertainment, including scripted TV, movies, professional wrestling, and so on. And part of that includes at least the promise of a reasonably level playing field, where teams put their best effort out and leagues don’t dictate who wins.

But team and league incentives are different, especially around marketing. Marketing can be emphasized by leagues, but shouldn’t be a factor in teams’ best efforts to win. And that’s a distinction many are missing in the current discussion of Caitlin Clark being left off the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team. The “marketing” conversation here, which has really gone off the rails this week, is all about something USA Basketball officials explicitly said they didn’t consider. And it’s something they shouldn’t have considered.

It is undisputed that leagues sometimes choose marketing over what might be seen as the absolutely most equal outcome from a competitive standpoint. The biggest example of this is with scheduling. There, most leagues try to put matchups they think will draw the best into their nationally-televised windows.

That’s not always about who is the most competitive on the field. (In fact, it’s rare when networks do try to show all teams.) The Yankees and Red Sox frequently have received more Sunday Night Baseball slots than teams in smaller markets. Even bad NFC East teams (and the New York Jets) often get NFL primetime games. Some Canadian teams in several sports have received fewer national slots than they’d like, with their lack of a local U.S. TV market often cited as a reason why. And many other teams have complained about the lack of primetime slots.

However, this is generally (albeit not universally) tolerated by fans for a couple of reasons. One, teams can sometimes play their way into increased attention. And two, even more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be a real competitive edge from playing in top windows or not.

Beyond that, deciding when teams play is not deciding if they do play or not. Less prominent teams still get their on-field chances, just not always in the biggest windows. So while leagues are operating from a marketing point of view with scheduling moves, they’re not influencing the outcomes. (And suggestions of leagues actually influencing outcomes are much more serious, and spark much more controversy when they arise.)

A team making a marketing-focused decision is a much more grave accusation. And yes, that has happened at times. One particular case that comes to mind is Tim Tebow’s attempt to play professional baseball. There, the New York Mets signed him against their area scout’s recommendation and credited his signing to the director of merchandising.

Even the Tebow signing had limits, though. Yes, he did advance further through the ranks than his play likely justified, including with invites to spring training with the big-league team. But the Mets didn’t actually run him out there in a regular-season game. (Marketing-only moves have happened in the MLB ranks, particularly many involving Bill Veeck, but that didn’t quite happen here.) And while he later got a bizarre NFL opportunity as a tight end, he didn’t make the regular-season squad.

And this is getting missed by many in the Clark discourse. Yes, pundits like Stephen A. Smith, Christine Brennan, Colin Cowherd, Tony Kornheiser, and others have a point that putting Clark on the team would likely draw more attention and higher ratings. But attention and ratings are primary concerns for leagues and broadcast partners. And when they are a concern for teams, it’s from a business perspective rather than an on-field perspective.

In the case of Clark and the Olympic squad, USA Basketball is acting as a team rather than a league. In that role, their one and only incentive should be constructing the best team with the highest chances of winning gold, not drawing the best ratings along the way. Thus, suggesting that they should do something based on “marketing” goes against their role, and against those key elements of sports.

Yes, as many have noted, this U.S. team seems likely to win gold regardless of who their 12th member is. They’ve won gold at the last seven straight Olympics, after all, and they will be significant favorites again. But that still doesn’t mean that they should factor marketing into who they select. (And if this did somehow go wrong for them, a marketing-driven pick of a player would be a very easy target in discussions of their failure.) And they made it clear they didn’t factor it in:

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said the committee was aware of the outside noise and pressure to select Clark, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft who has drawn millions of new fans to the sport from her record-setting career in college at Iowa to now with the Indiana Fever.

“Here’s the basketball criteria that we were given as a committee and how do we evaluate our players based on that?” Rizzotti told The Associated Press in an interview. “And when you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes. Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for [coach Cheryl Reeve] and then sometimes a vote.”

…”It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team,” Rizzotti said. “Because it wasn’t the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the U.S. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl.”

There absolutely can be arguments made that Clark deserved a spot on this team based on strictly basketball criteria. Her accomplishments and records at the NCAA level are clear. And while her WNBA numbers haven’t hit that level yet, some (especially her 30-point, eight-rebound, six-assist game against the Washington Mystics Friday) certainly suggest she can do well at the top level.

Whether Clark has shown enough to replace any of the guards who were picked for this team is more of a debate. But that debate can be had. It’s far more reasonable than much of the talk we saw around Tebow, as Clark certainly was in contention for this team (and has been reported as a likely alternate if needed). And team-construction debates have been had for decades around other teams, including the 1992 U.S.  men’s basketball Dream Team (Jack McCallum, who wrote the 2012 book Dream Team, had a good look at some of those comparisons recently).

Even more subjective on-court arguments (“She’s learning as she goes, she’ll play better here! Picking her here will get her Olympic experience that will help USA Basketball down the road!”) can be advanced as fair things for decision-makers here to consider. And those debates are fine to have. But ratings aren’t something these executives considered, and it’s not something they should have considered. Arguing marketing versus on-court just leads to people talking past each other (and sometimes in far-from-ideal ways.)

Oddly enough, marketing versus on-court is getting missed from the other side in some of the other discussions about Clark and the WNBA. Yes, Clark absolutely is not the only prominent player in the league or even the only prominent new player in it. But she does elevate the viewing audience more than anyone else.

That very much does not mean that the WNBA should try to help Clark out on the court. Doing so would lead to massive cries of unfairness. But it fits a long tradition of league behavior to put Clark’s games in more prominent windows and try and capitalize on her popularity.

It’s understandable why Clark gets more sports media discussion than most players. Many shows react to what people are interested in, especially those that are quite clear they talk about what the audience wants to hear rather than trying to drive the conversation. And if marketing was considered in the Olympic selection, Clark absolutely should have been picked. But none of that actually gives her an edge on the court, which is all that USA Basketball says they considered.

The vital thing here is for everyone discussing Clark to be clear in separating on- and off-court effects, and who benefits from and should consider each. Those things do sometimes bleed together in some fashion, as we saw with the on-field opportunities Tebow got. But it’s problematic when they do.

It’s the leagues’ job to worry about marketing and ratings. It’s the job of team general managers and other player personnel executives to pick the best team without regard to ratings. It sounds like that’s the approach USA Basketball took here. And that should be reflected in the discussion, more than all this talk about “marketing” criteria they’re very clear they didn’t factor in.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.