It’s happened again. America has a new favorite sport. Many years ago it was baseball, the nation’s pastime. Then came football, and the marketing dollars and genius of the NFL. Football reigned supreme for years, but 2017 marked the year basketball and the NBA supplanted football as America’s #1 sport. The raw numbers will still tell the story that football rules, that’s mainly because of the gambling and fantasy football component. Then there are the stakes. A short season makes every game “important,” even though there are only a handful of teams with a legit shot at the title. Football trails basketball in terms of personable stars, is not part of the digital world like the NBA. The quality of play in the NFL has been poor of late and it’s never been better in the NBA. Plus the NFL is in a precarious state, infighting between the commissioner and important owners, and uncertainty regarding the future of the game. The NBA couldn’t be healthier under the guidance of Adam Silver, and his forward thinking vision will ensure the league’s long-term viability.
Celebrity and star power drive popular culture in America, and the NBA understands that in a way the NFL never has. Who are the top 5 guys in the NFL? Tom Brady, Von Miller, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Khalil Mack. At least that’s what the players predicted heading into this season. Besides Tom Brady, would you recognize any of those guys walking down the street? Contrast that to the top 5 guys in the NBA. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard. The only player you may not recognize is Leonard and that’s more a function of his laid-back demeanor. Yes, NFL players wear helmets and NBA guys don’t so there is a level of facial recognition that is impossible to compare. But there is more to it than that.
The NFL is always about the shield and the league above all else. You know the adage, it’s about the name on the front not the one on the back. Commissioner Roger Goodell often uses the phrase “protect the shield.” But what is a league or any entity without the people that comprise it? It’s nothing. Football faces an uncertain future and declining ratings. It could use a shot in the arm. You know what might help? Marketing some of its “non traditional” stars. Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Cam Newton, to name a few. The future of any league is being appealing you young fans. Young fans like celebrities and star power and the NBA gets it.
Do you know what else young fans like? The internet and digital content. Is there a more internet friendly sport and league than basketball and the NBA? The league has produced some of the best memes of all time: crying Jordan, Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead, KD Players Tribune Cover, KD’s You The Real MVP, Draymond yelling at KD. The list goes on and on.
The NBA’s players are some of the best social media follows as well. Young guys like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and CJ McCollum. Veterans like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. That goes for KD’s verified accounts and his burner accounts, because who doesn’t get amused by trolling?!
The NFL has the blowing a 28-3 meme from the Atlanta Falcons epic collapse against the Patriots in the last Super Bowl. There is the Eli Manning struggle face and the Roger Goodell lying face. But, do any of those readily come to your mind? Are you laughing? Plus I mentioned a commissioner as a meme. Granted he is terrible at his job and a punch line, but still. How does that appeal to the young demographic? The players in the NBA are also the Kings of Shade and Subtweets, there is so much pettiness and competitiveness that goes on deep within the NBA social media world. The NFL just doesn’t have anything close to compare. Part of it has to do with the structure of the league’s seasons. NBA players, because of the length of their season, have the ability to watch their peers perform on a nightly basis and comment and talk about it. NFL players, by and large, all play on the same day and don’t have the time to watch their peers. Not to mention, NFL guys don’t love to watch football the way NBA guys love watching basketball.
That brings us to quality of play. How many good, well-played NFL games has there been this season? Not important games, but well played. In a 16 week season every game is high stakes because of the inability to overcome a poor start. There just aren’t enough games to catch up. Play league wide has been poor and injuries are a major factor. In order to get better at playing football, you have to practice and play football. How do you practice a sport so dangerous that there are multiple major collisions on every play? You don’t. The league has long since reduced the number of contact practices during camp and after playing a physical game, how much physical work do you think happens during the following week? Football is an inherently dangerous game and in no sport is the drop-off from starter to backup more pronounced. So when teams inevitably get to their third, fourth, and fifth string players, because of injury is it any wonder the play has suffered?
Contrast that with the NBA, where the quality of play is extremely high. There are very good to star caliber players all over the league. Have you watched the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans or Detroit Pistons? We haven’t even mentioned the perennial playoff teams and the elite championship contenders. To steal an old tagline from a network that used to broadcast the NBA, the action is fantastic! A word of caution to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, don’t be too in love with your product that you make decisions that negatively impact the league in the long run and impact quality of play. The season started earlier this year to eliminate the amount of back-to-back games and four games in five night stretches. That’s all well and good but that meant training camp was cut short and there was less conditioning and practice time. Ideally, the league would cut the 82 game season to 75 or 72 games. Naturally that’s going to impact revenue but the owners and league can figure it out. These are smart guys.
Speaking of smart leadership…the NBA has the edge there as well. Roger Goodell is not very good at his job and has botched several key issues including: domestic violence, concussions/player safety, and drug use to name a few. He is the highest paid commissioner of the four major sports and his league is consistently in the news for all the wrong reasons. His relationship with the owners and players is tenuous at best and while the league continues to be very profitable his mishandling of those issues will continue to have a negative and possibly detrimental impact going forward.
Adam Silver is a forward thinking commissioner and the NBA is thriving under his leadership. He has made changes to the all-star game, the draft lottery process, and has embraced the demand for e-sports. He continues to build the game abroad and the league will have its first ever Junior NBA World Championship for youth teams around the world. Whether true or not, Silver and the NBA’s owners at least give the appearance that they are in partnership with the players. Because of the ability of one player to have such a positive impact on a franchise there is a modicum of partnership between labor and management.
The ratings will now, and for the foreseeable future continue to support the argument that football is number one. But everything else suggests that basketball and in particular the NBA is the more enjoyable, fan engaging, sports experience. More stars we know, better content for a digital, social world. More appealing to the young fan, and a forward thinking commissioner with his eyes on the long-term success of the league and its players.
Jarod Hector is a New York City born-and-raised sports and pop culture enthusiast. A multimedia journalist & host who enjoys nuanced discussions of the intersection between sports, culture, and society. He believes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest album of the past 20 years and says if you root for billionaire owners over millionaire athletes you're part of the problem. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @jshector.
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