The Dream Scheme

When Olympics rulemakers decided a few years ago to let National Basketball Association players join the Games, they served notice - if notice was needed - that the amateur ideal was gone forever.

The Dream Team, as the US Olympic basketball squad was soon dubbed, drubbed everyone in sight at the last Olympics and will probably repeat the performance this summer. It's a great romp for stars like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, and for fans who don't mind the lack of competition.

But the Dream Team isn't just about what happens on the court. It has in fact become a money machine, dunking millions of dollars into the coffers of everyone involved. Sales of Dream Team paraphernalia are reported to top $100 million a year, with the shirts, warm-ups, balls, whatever, drawing customers in 17 countries.

Royalties on these sales bring in $5 million to $7 million, which is distributed to USA Basketball, the nonprofit organization that assembles the national team, and NBA Properties, the pro league's marketing arm that handles the Dream Team promotion and sales.

The players get $100,000 apiece, small change compared with their NBA earnings, but a huge amount compared with the training stipends given to other Olympic athletes.

Companies of almost every kind - financial services to footwear - line up for a piece of the Dream Team. They pay $1.8 million to $3 million to link their products to a sure winner. Special rules are needed to make sure the product endorsements by individual players don't clash.

All this may be part of a new Olympic ideal - with the real gold going to the scheme behind the team.

A semblance of the old ideal may still exist in out-of-the-limelight events like fencing, canoeing, or Greco-Roman wrestling. But we'll get only a glimpse of those, while every game of the Dream Team will be broadcast in full.

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