The Spoils: How Brands Made Basketball a Big Business on Every Level (Even for Kids)

Muse chats with filmmaker Mike Nicoll

Mike Nicoll's feature doc, The Spoils: Selling the Future of American Basketball, had its New York premiere last week. Shot over 11 years, it's a thought-provoking film that raises questions about business taking control of the game. 

Currently streaming on, The Spoils is billed as "unraveling the raw capitalism of a factory that's built to identify, anoint, and monetize 'The Next LeBron.'" 

It's a project Nicoll always wanted to make, having played the sport since grade school and college.

The L.A.-based filmmaker says he had an awareness at age 10 that things were not as they seemed regarding basketball's deeply murky system.

The Spoils follows high-school basketball upstarts from Compton Magic, the premier grassroots program of the AAU, and their journey into the NBA. That said, the film is hyper-focused on the adults who pull the strings. 

Less about sports and more of an exposé on shadowy financial systems, the doc demonstrates how the money, power and influence of big brands have irreversibly changed basketball by professionalizing it at every level—starting at the pre-teen stage.

Muse spoke to Nicoll about the film's goals, the power held by the big sneaker companies and what's next. 

MUSE: You're so passionate about this subject matter. Can you expand on why?

MIKE NICOLL: I've always been drawn to this material—it's such a rich storytelling ground for so many reasons. It's like the collision of everything that makes America, America. You have this bottomless capitalism. Raw ambition. Almost no regulation. This is such an intentionally complicated space. For so many years, a lot of what goes on inside was pretty unsavory—or, in some cases, illegal. So there's all this clouded plausible deniability, and the levels of the system are so incredibly interconnected.

Did your original vision for The Spoils change while you filmed it over a decade?

With At All Costs [his first feature doc], the goal was to demonstrate how every level of the system had been professionalized. The Spoils shows that this top-down professionalization is being backed up with how the business is now the game—and how business is the No.1 priority for everyone involved. I think The Spoils is one of the most important films in the basketball documentary genre, because I had to migrate my point of view from "This is the truth" to "Why does it matter?"

Can you talk about how the big shoe companies are instrumental in creating  players with star power, since the game is now secondary to the money machine? 

The sneaker companies are the most influential forces in this world. They bankroll the entire system. They set the incentives. And let's not sugarcoat the fact that they exist to sell shoes and merch, right? This system is built to identify, anoint and monetize the next LeBron. They're looking for brand ambassadors, which is very different from seeking to develop the best players or acting in the best interests of the game—or even these kids.

There's so much money being invested. You just have to take a real sober look at why they're doing it and decide whether that aligns with what you want and where you want to go. It's easy for anybody who wants to get a piece of it to step in and start exerting influence. The shoe companies have the most direct incentives. And they've done a great job of entrenching themselves. They understand that these kids are extremely powerful salesmen within their own communities. People think kids watch TV and say, "I want to be like Kobe" or "I want to be like LeBron." But you know who they really want to be like? The popular varsity athlete at their school or the star player in their orbit. The shoe companies have been savvy about understanding that—and going to work on that.

What's your ultimate goal with this film?

Integrating this movie into basketball culture in a meaningful way. Hundreds of thousands of families enter this system, and they have no clue how to navigate it. If this film can help families figure out a way to design a plan that optimizes what they want, that is the success for me. You're not going to hit a target that you're not aiming at. It's so important to be intentional with your goals, whether that's a particular scholarship, or if you're using the game to elevate your life. And being plugged into the right network, finding the right people who are in sync with you and your family is key. 

I'd also point to this generation of kids who are identifying with brand-building and social media followings and attention-seeking. All these things are not in the best interest of what this beautiful team game can offer. That's one of the things I'm most interested in talking about: what happens to the soul of the game when the money avalanche just consumes and compromises it?

What's next for you?

My next film is concerned with the financial models of legacy sports institutions, like sports franchises, and agencies— how they're being designed and run. I really love untangling system dynamics.

Shahnaz Mahmud
Shahnaz Mahmud is a contributing writer to Muse by Clio.

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