Sunday marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs. The 82-game regular season ended Wednesday, and marked the end of a tumultuous 12 months in the NBA. Starting with Donald Sterling a year ago, Bruce Levenson in the fall, a slew of high-profile injuries, and some marquee franchises struggling, this 2014-2015 season could rank as the most disappointing in recent memory in terms of fan interest. The NBA may have the best product they have ever had, and is in a key crossroads for their future as a business and a cultural symbol.
Basketball is the second most popular sport in the world, and is continuing to grow. In addition, basketball has cultural appeal that extends across so many cultures and demographics. Basketball, as a sport, seems to be in a period of marked success – more kids are playing basketball than ever, and it remains the most popular youth team sport. Internationally, foreign teams and prospects are becoming more competitive, and 2014 set a record for most international players on the opening roster. So basketball is succeeding. But what about the NBA? How come NBA’s viewership was down in 2014?
In this article, I will address a couple issues that I have seen with the NBA. The number one reason for their decline in viewers, in my opinion, deserves its own post. I will get to that later.
One of the biggest issues with viewer interest comes down to the nature of the sport of basketball. One player influences team success more than in any other sport. Lebron’s return to Cleveland this year surely shows validity in that statement. Unlike other North American sports franchises, where the value is in the team name, locale, and stadium, NBA franchises are mostly tied to the players on that team. When Lebron came back to Cleveland from Miami, the Cavaliers doubled in value. Outside the Lakers and Celtics, teams are popular because players are popular. The NBA is a player driven league – considerably more so than any other league.
Tied to this is the variance in talent in the NBA. The best players (Lebron, Kevin Durant) are superior to the weakest players by such a wide margin, wider than in sports such as baseball, football or hockey. Over the course of NBA history, stars have dominated the league: Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird, and Jordan are the prime examples. When stars didn’t dominate, mainly from the “Bad Boys” Pistons teams in late 80s and early 90s, it was not due to strategy or skill as much as intimidation and brute force. Great players are what win NBA championships.
Modern basketball has changed the landscape of NBA success to a certain degree. In the past 5 seasons, stars are choosing to play together, creating several powerhouse teams. The rise of analytics has given teams without stars, or at least with less star power, a better chance to succeed. This has promoted some of the most efficient and entertaining basketball in years. The Warriors have the league’s best record and may be the most fun team to watch in the league; those two identifiers coupled together may be a first for the league since the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. Competitive balance in the west makes every team either a lot of fun or a legitimate title contender. The Hawks in the East won without having any names that a casual NBA fan would know (in fact, no one on the Hawks cracked 30 points this season; James Harden scored that many 35 times). In addition, players are bigger, stronger, and in better shape than ever. In addition, due to the rise of AAU youth leagues, young players can come into the league ready to contribute more than ever before. Basketball, at least amongst the top 8-10 teams, is played at a more competitive and higher level than ever.
So what gives? Why is the NBA mired in low interest? One reason that is often talked about is the season length. In the most recent period of early April, even the most diehard of NBA fans are longing for the season to end. The season drags on forever. A side effect not alaways talked about is the drain this has on the players. Due to the fact that the game is played on a higher level every night, the game takes a huge toll on the body. This is not the 1970s, where players didn’t run hard every possession and little contact was allowed. Modern basketball is intense, physically demanding and a contact sport. This poses problems, particularly with players who treat professionalism seriously. The Mavericks’ Monta Ellis hates missing games, and had a 237 consecutive game streak recently snapped. Many players take their nightly consistency seriously, but what that leads to is more injuries. This season endured unending injuries to star players, which diminished the product and the fan interest.
The myriad of injuries is a morale crusher to the fans, but the wear and tear on players may diminish careers. The NBA and its players may need to recognize that less is more when it comes to games and scheduling. The season is far too long and grueling for players to maintain their elite physical abilities, so either the league needs to go to a year-round model with 82 games, lessen the number of games, or both.
Next post, I’ll address the number one reason I believe the NBA is not living up to the potential of its athletes and its sport. Stay tuned…