22 April 2007

The NBA Playoffs are here: Does anyone care?

As you all know, the NBA playoffs started this weekend, and there were some decent storylines: The Mavericks losing to the Warriors, Kobe Bryant running out of gas in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls holding off the Heat.

But the biggest storyline should really not be any of these things, as it should be how far the NBA has fallen in the American sporting spectrum. If you think that the NBA is even as close to as popular as the time when Michael Jordan was playing in the mid-1990s, you are kidding yourself.

Let’s take a look at some facts:

-Regular-season network ratings have cut in half since 1998
-One regular-season game this season on ABC got a 1.0 national HH rating, less than a quarter of the average regular-season rating in 1998
-The ratings for this year’s All-Star weekend (especially the game on Sunday) were about as big of a disappointment to Turner as the “South Central” atmosphere was to visitors of the MGM Grand
-Playoff ratings across the board have also faced similar declines

Unless the finals feature the Lakers, or possibly the Cavaliers or the Heat, the ratings for this year’s finals shape up to be the lowest in years. Any marketing or television executive having anything to do with NBA has to be disheartened with these trends.

While pretty much every sport with the exceptions of pro and college football have also faced declines in a world of increasing entertainment options, what these declines also prove is that the sport is becoming culturally marginalized. As the sport has further fused itself with hip-hop culture over the past 10-15 years, liking hip-hop music and the NBA have become one and the same. While the league isn’t going anyway any time soon, it’s becoming more difficult to consider it mainstream culture.

Since basketball, more so than any other major sport, is so synonymous with big name teams and stars, the NBA only succeeds when power teams and players are in the spotlight, like the Bulls of the 1990s or the Lakers of the early 2000s. Frankly, the only way for the NBA to ensure itself of big name teams being in the finals would be for it to abandon the salary cap so that someone like Kobe Bryant wouldn’t be stuck with no star power around him. However, I wouldn’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

For those of you who are excited about this year’s playoffs, enjoy. However, just realize you are not in the majority.

23 comments:

Robby Findler said...

I love the NBA.

But ... you know ... a little less money in the NBA wouldn't necc. be a bad thing.

(Ditto for Computer Science, where I make my living.)

Anonymous said...

you can't compare regular season ratings to playoff viewership.

Anonymous said...

First, television ratings are a notoriously fickle way to measure "popularity," especially in the internet/TIVO era. It's perhaps worth mentioning that the NBA did set an attendance record this year.

Especially in the case of basketball - I have raised this point in other forums, but the basketball demographic is remarkably skewed. I go to a baseball game and the stands are full of ... parents, grandparents ... and kids who in large part couldn't care less about the game. Not making a value judgment - I love baseball - but the sport itself survives on an apple pie nostalgia. I'd bet the average American could name more of the NBA's Top 10 scorers than MLB's Top 10 HR leaders.

By contrast, when I attend basketball games the crowd is full of kids geeked up about the action (unfortunately, this mostly translates into "slam dunks RULZ" at that age) and parents who couldn't be less interested. As for grandparents, forgot it.

Point being, the NBA has a bright future, both among the U.S. market (as these generations age) and abroad. MLB will survive (who doesn't enjoy the ballpark in summer?) but it's *baseball* that is increasingly culturally irrelevant.

Second, "hip hop" culture vs. "mainstream" America is rather an antiquated formulation. Perhaps Bill O'Reilly and the suburbs still haven't caught on, but "hip hop" culture *is* mainstream America, for better or worse.

That said, there is a general reluctance among large portions of corporate America to accept that, and that does create the sort of cultural dissonance I think you're referring to. The skyboxes at your average NBA games just aren't filled by white-shoe law firms and the like, and it does maintain a curious aura of disrepute. But I'd hesitate to conflate that with it's "popularity" as a general notion.

NFN said...

the playoffs are the greatest thing in the history of the world. robert horry is the best inbounds passer in nba history as well as the best post feeder. i'm hungry.

sex is a close second.

Anonymous said...

Internationally, however, the NBA is making bank. I, for one, will be heartbroken when my San Antonio Spurs become the Guangzhou Spurs.

Anonymous said...

FUCK THE SPURS

Matt said...

Also, as long as ABC schedules out tired heat-lakers christmas games months in advance, their regular-season games are going to miss the mark. The NBA is a mercurial thing, with unexpected teams mounting surges, and the interesting regular-season storylines are all but impossible to determine in advance.

You could also make an extremely convincing case that the NBA's television strategy is, being charitable, a disaster. The game itself is intense, and going in the right direction. The fact that the media doesn't "get" it isn't important. The media doesn't "get" video games either, but that doesn't change their cultural relevance.

Anonymous said...

Playoff ratings are up the last two years for the NBA, you need to check your facts.

Anonymous said...

NBA and basketball is the best sport america has. It requires skill.

spanish bombs said...

I like the NBA, and I would say that USABasketball sucking balls recently is a major culprit, as is the complete lack of personality of most of the league's best players: Lebron, Wade, Duncan, Dirk-now-that-Nash-is-gone, Kobe, Kidd, Bosh. There aren't many truly great players in the game right now with style and personality...Arenas and Nash come to mind, maybe T-Mac and Garnett as well, but they need to win before they get recognition with Duncan, Kobe, et al. And yes, Gilbert is getting giant bonus points for personality overcoming lack of greatness.

Anonymous said...

Its not the hip-hop, USA basketball (nobody watches it anyways even when they were good), Matt came closest to it. VERY SIMPLE REASON

ITS NO LONGER THE NBA ON NBC

Nobody could build up drama quite like them: EVIDENCE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXNKN0QajQ0
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fe-TEQ0yMN0

archstanton said...

I think the "unpopularity" of the NBA has more to do with junior varisityfication of the Eastern Conference. When the teams in the big basketball media markets like New York, Boston and Philadelphia are bad, ratings suffer and positive press also suffers. Throw in a mediocre LA team and you have the recipe for low ratings.

You also can't discount the fact that the Disney televised games on ABC and ESPN suck. Their presentation is horrible. The difference between Disney and TNT/old NBC is apparent.

Anonymous said...

back in the 90s it was more of an event for nba games on the weekends and stuff like that. this year the attendance record was set, there are more quality players busting out onto the scene, and into their prime, with no stars over the hill and very few entering the twilight of their career, plus this years draft has a lot of very good players and more and more are coming internationally and from college now instead of highschool. THE NBA IS EXTREMELY RELEVANT AND POPULAR, im 21 years old especially in my generation, its the sport of choice along with football. it just doesnt get as much regular season ratings because of internet exposure, highlights, and its not an event anymore like it used to be. sunday doubleheaders were a big deal back then now theres a game every night, but the nba is heading into an elite era of basketball history with all the young talented superstars and cores of teams, and just so many young players and teams getting better and better, plus more coming in, 98 til 03 was like a transitional period and now were entering an elite era of basketball again since the pistons won the title. and how dare you say the playoffs arent as popular, are you crazy? did you watch the playoffs last year? watch them this year they are unbelievable, and theyre only gonna get better as these teams continue to jel together and build upon their cores, i can only think of two superstars over the age of 33 (bball superstars can usually play at a high level til about 36 years old, jordan played to 40) and thats c webber and shaq, and i see another 3 good years in them too! guys like zo, grant hill, penny, and the glove are all over the hill or just couldnt overcome the injuries, but they can still play and make a good impact as role players due to their heart, knowledge and experience, plus durant and oden and the boys of 07 are coming into the league, and all the rest of the highschoolers that entered are developing their games to get to stardom. WHAT KID?!? NBA ROCKS I LOVE THIS GAME! and playoff basketball has never been better, ratings are very high, attendance record, this game is very popular not only nationally but worldwide! i love b ball. go nuggets MELO & AI= CHAMPS MELO IS A WINNER LED ORANGEMEN TO NATIONAL CHAMP AS FRESHMAN, NOW HES GONNA LEAD THE NUGGETS TO THE GOLD! ONE.

Call Me Coach said...

Great points, I would agree, the NBA is losing relavence, fast. But I'm not sure this has to do with the infusion of Hip Hop. Many won't admit it, but Hip Hop is mainstream these days. It is advertised all over the nation's major markets and white kids across america are buying into the music and the culture... whether I like it or not. In fact, I would say that the NBA's post-Jordan marketing stratagy of partially embracing Hip Hop culture was not only smart, but necessary.

I think the problems going on with the NBA these days have to do with the fact that the league is marketed in one way, while the game is being played in an entierly different way. Put more simply, the players being advertised are not always the players winning games. The NBA/TNT/ABC/ESPN are still all about players who play, more or less, like mike (Kobe, Lebron, Carmelo, Carter, McGrady, Wade), refusing to acknowledge that the versitle wing (which is what Jordan epitomized) is only one of many roles played by the world's best players. Duncan, Nowitzki, and Bosh are three examples of good players who cannot seem to find a market, while point guards who don't score go largly unnoticed (Steve Nash is an exception because of his MVPs), Jason Kidd is one of the best PGs in NBA history and still one of the top five today, yet when's the last time he got any airtime? Deron Williams? Kirk Hienreich?

I think the problem is that the fans are being told one thing about basketball (namely that oversized, versitle 2s and 3s win games) but see something entierly different (Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Pistons, Bulls win games without any elite players at these positions). The distance b/w advertising and reality is what puts off fans.

Great blog btw.

Anonymous said...

Those of you who think the NBA has a bright future with the current direction it has taken are in LALA land. Seriously I hate it when people bring up attendance records. You do realize that they count total attendance and not the percentage of seats filled in arenas. There are more teams now than the 80s and 90s, so there is more total attendance. Also the NHL keeps setting attendance records and yet has many teams at the brink of bankruptcy.

I mean come on people, all but one NBA playoff game got beat in television ratings by 8 hours worth of NFL draft coverage ratings. The ratings are just horrible and getting worst. I honestly believe the biggest problem is not this so-called Hip Hop culture, but I believe the biggest culprit is David Stern.

I also believe that that one of the biggest problems is that under David Stern the NBA has marketed the players over the teams. This worked well for the NBA when some of it's best players were located on good teams in major markets. For example Jordan in Chicago, Magic in LA, Kareem in LA, Bird in Boston, Ewing in New York, Shaq and Kobe in LA. Now you have top players in smaller markets and some top players on average to below average teams. The player first strategy in my opinion is back firing on the NBA.

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