The NBA’s Image

Kurt —  April 15, 2005

One of the fun things about having a blog is you get interesting email, like the one I got from Ryan, an University of Illinois freshman doing a paper on the NBA’s “image problem” and looking for comments on topics ranging from the proposed age limit to the glory days of the 1980s. We can question whether I was the right person to ask, but it got me to clarify my thoughts about issues around the game I have mulled over for a while.

I wrote Ryan back with a lengthy commentary on the image issue, and have decided to post it here as well (with a few edits). Please add your thoughts as well.

I see the NBA’s “identity crisis” as more of a culture clash than a series of on-the-court concerns, and it mirrors a clash taking place throughout society but this one is amplified because of the media attention focused on the NBA.

On one hand you have the vast majority of the players and a large part of the broader-base of fans watching from home being more urban, younger and part of a “hip-hop generation” (I use that for lack of a better identifying term). But for the most part they are not the ones who can afford to be season ticket holders and they are not the corporate sponsors — that is a group that is white, middle to upper class, older and unsure of all things hip hop. (I accept that these are rather broad categories and certainly not a total picture, but I think it does paint a generally accurate picture.)

NBA marketing people try to walk a fine line here, catering to both groups while trying to offend no one. When it comes to their biggest stages, they play it safe — at the All Star game this year the halftime musical line up looked like the Country Music Awards. The only “hip” artists were crossover acts like Outkast.

But the NBA is in bed with rap and the hip hop crowd — remember that the vast majority of rap albums are bought by white youth — even if it tries to play that relationship down. Those who do not like the new style may harken back to the “golden era” of Jordan, but he was the first guy to wear his shorts long and had “Air Jordans” out before having your own shoe was common. Jordan ushered in the NBA’s hip-hop relationship.

Now, that’s not to say that the NBA and its players don’t bring a fair amount of this “image problem” on themselves. There’s a well-known list here — topped by the fight earlier this season in Detroit — of players acting foolishly at best, like criminals at worst.

And the Olympics disaster/style of game plays into this perception. The NBA game has evolved into one of isolation plays rather than the “team play” we think should win. (Even if that perception is flawed — the winner of the NBA title last season was the best team, if healthy the Spurs will be favorites this year because they are the best team. My Lakers had Shaq and Kobe, but won because of the team around them of good, fundamental role players.)

By the way, the Olympic loss falls only somewhat on the players and more on the NBA/USA Basketball for the team they assembled. They put together an NBA All-Star team that could sell jerseys with little consideration for the way the game is played internationally. The closer three-point line and wider base of the lane makes it very different than the NBA. We needed Michael Redd and shooters, but put together a team of isolation players.

One thing that contributes to this image problem — not just in the NBA but also in all major professional sports — is the money. It’s not just what the players earn so much as it makes them hard to relate to for the average fan. Ken Burns in his Baseball documentary noted that in the 1960s the average major league baseball player made six times what the average American worker made. Now, the average NBA player make $3.7 million a year, about 123 times what an average American worker earns.

I’m not sure that the NBA will every get back to the image it had in the 1980s, but I’m not sure it wants to. The fact of the matter is, the league, the owners, the players are all making far more money now and that’s what will drive this. If you say that is driving away fans long term, I counter that in a couple of years when LeBron James is approaching Jordanesqe popularity and is competing for titles, the television ratings and popularity of the sport will be back near all time highs. This is cyclical. Ratings for the playoffs will be down this season not because of the level of play but because the love them/hate them Lakers with Shaq and Kobe won’t be playing in the finals.

As for the proposed age limit, that’s a band-aid fix on the issue of fundamental play. Better fundamental play is going to have to come from high schools, youth leagues and work its way on up. But I can’t see the NBA seriously putting in the age limit — I think it’s a negotiating ploy for the ongoing CBA negotiations — because it’s the former high schoolers who are selling tickets (and shoes and jerseys) right now. Garnett, McGrady, James, Stoudemire, Kobe and the list goes on and on to Dwight Howard in Orlando, drafted last year — they are the future of the NBA, hip hop or not.

to The NBA’s Image

  1. Great article, that was interesting