Cultural consumption, media presentation and basketball

Jonah Hall:

I’ve been considering why so many American sports fans have lost much of their love for NBA basketball over the last two decades or so while the rest of the world has been falling in love with the league.  The lockout drew a kind of line-in-the-sand for the casual fans who seemed to say, “Who cares” that the NBA might lose a season, to the genuinely involved fans who were frustrated, angry and disappointed that this year might have been a lost season.

I’ve written about the way that the NBA has been packaged, through every form of media, from television, to the in-game experience, to the internet, and how it has contributed to the reality of the NBA today.  It has given the players leveraging power over the GMs and owners (Carmelo to NYC, LeBron to Miami) and to the marketing and the media-focus of that decision-making process (ESPN’s asinine “The Decision”).  In many ways, we now market NBA players into celebrities more than actors or musicians.  We also see them in  real-life much more often than actors, or musicians.  We also judge them in real life based on their real-life performances much more than actors (and even musicians, I would argue).

The only time we seem to hear about baseball players and their free agency choices seems to be when they resist the urge to go to the Yankees, or when Scott Boras is negotiating their contracts; in fact, we hear more about the financial savvy of baseball GMs than we hear about the players and their decision about where to play; that is unless it’s a rare situation like Manny choosing to play in Los Angeles–and we hear about that only in part because he was such a dominant hitter; we hear about it in part because it involves Los Angeles and a cultural phenomenon.  Left field in Dodger Stadium becomes Manny-Wood, and fake-dread-locked caps are sold.  On the other hand, Clayton Kershaw, despite his accomplishments, doesn’t become a celebrity and doesn’t end up in the national spotlight…not until he resists that urge to become a Yankee.

Here are some of my thoughts on the NBA and our cultural consumption of it. I’d love to hear your responses.  Do you agree or disagree with any of this?

An aspect of following professional basketball that many Americans actively dislike is the star-focused nature of the economics and the media focus of the NBA.  When most Americans don’t feel that they have control of their own careers, they don’t like to see their would-be heroes having complete control over their own.  Today’s star-driven climate gives Carmelo Anthony all of the power that Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Hank Aaron never had. Perhaps it gives them too-much control, and this can harm the overall balance of the league.  However, it is the system that we have set-up for these players, and that they have earned because we are willing to pay a huge amount to sit in NBA arenas and watch them.

That about 80% of the stars/celebrities of this system happen to be African-American further reinforces this dislike among some, and can transform each fan’s engagement with and opinion of the NBA into a socio-cultural statement. The more you enjoy the “Show” aspect of sport, the easier it is to enjoy the NBA, which is in part why it has become such a global phenomenon.

Completely unlike hockey (where the best players are on the ice for barely more than one-third of each game and on television players are barely recognizable as individuals) and mostly unlike baseball (where the Starting Pitcher can be the driving force in attendance, or gain the casual fan’s television-viewing interest once or twice out of every five games), basketball tickets and television revenue, merchandise sales, and all of the other business-related aspects of the multi-billion dollar global industry that is the NBA, are driven by a few specific players.  Quarterbacks in football are the only team-sport athletes who play every game that have nearly as much of a spotlight on them as basketball players do.

Without Chris Paul, the New Orleans Hornets are completely irrelevant in terms of money coming in.  Without Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic are mostly irrelevant in terms of money coming in. This is true because Without Paul, the Hornets’ roster makes them a place where nobody wants to play, in addition to the fact that they are a smaller market and can’t consider going anywhere near the cap.  It is also true because TNT, ABC, and ESPN won’t want them without Paul.  When the Celtics lose KG, Pierce and Allen, they will most likely lose many nationally televised games as well, despite the fact that Rondo will still be a draw, because they won’t be considered even close to a contender, and they won’t have star power.  This aspect of the NBA is like Hollywood. Stars drive the economics of the box office in both realms.  This isn’t true to the same extent in any other sport except for maybe baseball at times (certain SPs, rookie phenoms like Strasburg, HR-chases, etc.) It is true in tennis and golf, where people want to come out to see specific players perform, but since they are individual sports, it doesn’t hit us the same way.

That’s part of the story of what the NBA has become, and it has become both an attendance and ratings and merchandise gold-mine: (“Come see your team beat the selfish bastard LeBron James!” or “Come see these celebrities (Lakers, Heat) play against your pathetic hometown team!” or “Come see the best teams beat your pathetic hometown team!”as well as a genuine fan of team sports’ worst-nightmare: people who value public displays of humility, people who care about unselfishness and defense and the team-focused ideas that basketball can and has delivered to us.

Of course, the genuine fan knows team defense often still determines who wins and loses in the playoffs.  The Celtics defense of the last four years has never been about star power.  Guys like Perkins, James Posey, and Tony Allen were critically important, but often unnoticed by the casual non-Boston fans.  The great Spurs teams were the same way, but Bruce Bowen has never been NBC’s lead-in celebrity/star for the NBA Finals’ Promo-spots.The Bulls, led by Thibodeau have the same team-concept of rotation-based defense, where effort and strategy combine to shut down opponents.  But it is much harder to market team defense than it is to market Derrick Rose’s athletic ability, which is why the image we get of the Bulls is “Derrick Rose leads the Bulls” rather than “Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, incredible hustle and extra effort, and Derrick Rose lead the Bulls.”

Interesting to analyze the way in which we consume different sports and the lens through which each sport is presented to us.


Lyon Keating:

I feel like I’ve heard lots of statistics thrown at me in the last five to ten years that the popularity of the NBA has gone extremely up.  Is it in fact falling from things that you’ve read?  Was it more popular 20 years ago than it was today?  I remember being interested in the NBA during the Michael Jordan era (who wasn’t) and then not really interested again until my home town team of the Warriors had that great season (2006 I think) where they beat the Mavs in the first round.  However, since then the warriors have sucked and I haven’t really been that interested other than last year when Lebron James joined the Heat and my interest got sparked by watching what superstars could do together.  I wasn’t too butt hurt about the NBA not playing but I’ll admit that watching the NBA casually gives me somethng to look forward to in the winter when baseball is not in season.  Plus, my favorite time of the year is either in Oct when the start of the baseball playoffs are or in May when the MLB is starting and the NBA is winding down.  I don’t really care too much for the NFL except for when the playoffs are happening and then I’m mildly interested.  Maybe this will change this year as the niners are good again but really I don’t really like dedicating my Sundays to watching football all the time and football in general just reminds me of a bunch of ogres running around.  I love playing Hockey but hate watching it.  Even with all the HD I don’t understand how people watch a sport where they can’t see the ball (puck) ever!  Maybe my eyes are just bad.

I totally agree with you that sports athletes are “THE” celebrities in our society today.  They are in the spotlight more than anyone else except maybe a politician during election time.  I would be one, however, to enjoy how the players particulary in the NBA have enjoyed more power than the GMs or the owners or whatever.  Where many people hated the Lebron situation I liked it and enjoyed seeing somebody join up with others to stick it to the upper elites (not that they arn’t elites themselves but I suppose I just gave in to the symbolism of it).  If I were a professional athlete I would not have an agent and I would be in the direct line of power of controling who I am and my own value.  The game wouldn’t exist without the players who make it exciting so let them do what they want.  It also wouldn’t exist without the fans.  We pay to go to see them, the owners pay to have them on their team so if you really don’t like them then don’t pay to see them or pay them to play.  In contrast, the game still goes on without the owners or the GMs.  They should come second after the players.

I would sort of agree that we only hear about baseball players when they either go to the Yankees or refuse to go there.  However, I’m hearing a lot these days about all the free agents and what teams they are going to.  Lebron is a physically mamonth sized superstar so of course you will hear about him a lot.  Maybe the equivalent would have been Barry Bonds in his hey day if he were to switch teams or whatever or like you said Manny.  The personalities of Pujols, Reyes, Fielder just isn’t the same as these BIG name and BIG ego guys but they could be if they wanted to.  Even less important players could be as well but the ego has to be there first.  Kershaw doesn’t have the ego, or at least not yet, so he won’t be in the spotlight.

Like I was mentioning above, I would put a lot of the blame of the NBA’s infatuation with the star on people.  Why are they still buying tickets if they in fact hate it?  Is buying basketball tickets like smoking tabacco and hard to shake once you start?  The last I heard this was not the case and people had control over their wallets.  I watch most, if not a few games a year, on my TV which is not majorly contributing to the money that the players make.  I think it’s ridiculous that NBA games are priced at what they are.  Unless your team absolutely sucks then you will be paying $30 for an upper deck ticket and that is more on the cheaper side.  I think $20 would be reasonable but I would never pay or simply cannot afford the normal prices of basketball games too many times during the season.  I know A LOT of people who go to these games make far less than I do so what are people doing?  They must like what’s going on I suppose, or really not care when it comes down to it as they keep on going.

I think racism has a lot to do with the NBA as well, specifically with older people.  I can sense when I watch NBA games with some of the older crowd, that they are being passively racist.  I think the specific term is a “modern racist.”  It is taboo now to be directly racist as in most spheres you’ll be socially isolated because of it but passive “modern” racism is now poeople express their racism in a more acceptable manner these days.  Things like making comments about how trashy the players look with their tattoos or with their hair or how they interact or talk in interviews all are things that border on this type of racism.  These people might not ever do anything against people they are racist against but you’ll know how they feel deep down inside as it comes out in subtle comments as such.  The danger of this type of racism is not that they will outright attack anybody but that they will lay passive and ignore everyone in their society that they are racist against.  However, even these people are still buying tickets.  I suppose it’s hard not to like raw athletic talent when it’s dunking in HD in front of you or even morso at the arena in row 12 with seats that are $100 as the arena is sweltering in adrenaline and applause and shouts of aggressive joy all while downing your third beer that costs $12 each.

I would disagree with you in the fact that baseball pitchers attract the the casual fans attention.  No casual fan really wants to see a pitching duel.  I highly agree with you that stars make the big bucks come in from every avenue.  I think there is a saying or something that goes “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.”  Maybe I have that mixed up with something else or maybe I just made it up right now!  Anyway, the point I’m making is that what is the sport that has the most offense that you can see on the scoreboard?  I would say it is basketball.  Each team scores over 100 points a game and people LOVE points!  Home run hitters score points, hockey stars score points, quarterbacks are directly giving the ball to those that score points.  In contrast soccer does not score a lot of points and is probably the reason why it isn’t that popular.  Your biggest names in all the sports will be the ones who are directly involved with scoring the most points.  Quarterbacks will always be huge, big scorers in basketball will always be huge, home hitters will always be on the posters and what makes most kids/people notice them.  A very small percentage of people and kids will go to the games to watch the defense.  Action is what people go and see and offense and point scoring is action!  If we in fact wanted defense to be valued more we would attribute points to playing good defense (instead of it being points being kepted off the board…nobody can really see that taking place, especially the casual fan).  The only example I can think of at the moment of a big name player that can sell an awesome amount of tickets much like an offense player was Neon Deon Sanders.  He could intercept passes and directly score points and he did so a lot.

The end all be all to this.  People understand team sports and do admire it and halfway know that good team defense leads to actual winning but they go to see games and watch them based on the stars that score.  Or I guess the extra point to this is have 5 stars on your team and not just one or two.


Jonah Hall:

I just googled “NBA” “Popularity” and “Demographics,” because I was looking for some evidence of my hunch: that the NBA is growing in popularity around the world, and that in the U.S. it is only growing among African-Americans and Asians.  The population change in the U.S. over the last twenty years is making soccer the 4th biggest U.S. sport now, over hockey.  That’s what I found in my search.  I don’t know how much research has been done on the popularity of the NBA among white fans.

I agree that enjoying the NBA seems to be almost impossible for white men over the age of 50.  I think there are a bunch of reasons, but among them is similar to what you described as “subtle racism.” Old white men can’t seem to enjoy the athleticism of young black men who are not being controlled by a system (NCAA hoops is okay, but the NBA is way too hip-hop for them).  This knee-jerk reaction seems based on the appearance of tattoos, the ESPN-focus of scandal and the narcissistic and celebrity-focused version of the NBA athlete.  The changing of our culture in general is hard for most people over 55 to deal with, and the NBA is much more closely linked and marketed to (as well as marketed by) this new media culture.  I would say baseball players (while they might be talked about during free-agency) are not celebrities because they can’t see things as well, or to as many people, as NBA stars.  Baseball players like Kershaw are not marketable to everyone (despite their dominance as athletes) because they are white and play baseball.  Young kids growing up in SoCal have Kershaw jerseys and Kemp jerseys, but how many non-white kids in Georgia and Alabama want a Kershaw jersey?  This might seem way too much of a generalization, but I think basketball jerseys and shoes sell because of 1) marketing is easier; and 2) there is a much broader population of people to sell to (across the world, as well as in the U.S.).

And with the selling of those jerseys to non-white kids, the old white men who may have some lingering racism and/or rejection of the changing culture, end up hating the NBA even more, because that poorly behaved young kid might happen to walk extra-slowly across the crosswalk with his NBA jersey on, while the old white man sits in his car getting annoyed.

It’s this kind of stuff that is embedded in the fans who show love for baseball vs basketball vs football vs hockey vs soccer is so culturally important.  Sports are truly social institutions that show us our society through a unique lens. For the last 10 years or so, I have been annoyed by the NFL in part because of my associations with the ogres that you talk about.  The average football fan always seems like he’s drooling on his shirt and throwing back beers more than understanding the game, or really giving a shit about the athleticism or the strategy involved.  They want to be manly men, and they like the bullshit machismo associated with the sport.  That’s how it feels. And that’s why I wish my dad and my brother loved the NBA the way that I do.  My dad is connected with football through his dad.  My brother and I are connected through baseball and tennis.  My two closest friends from high school are connected through the NBA and the Celtics.


Lyon Keating

From my hunch I would say that bball and all sports popularity are up (one of the reasons simply is that older stereotypically racist people are dying off and being replaced by newer, more open minded fans???).  I would think you are right, though, that the bball popularity is up among African American and Asians over whites.  Interesting to note that soccer is the new 4th largest sport, haha, watch out hockey!!!  Good for soccer I guess…although, I’ll admit that for some reason I feel that not liking soccer is something I relate to and what makes being American American!  Funny I think that way…

I would agree with about everything that you mentioned about the celebrity status of baseball players.  I think another reason for this is because the popularity of basketball and then football is much more popular than baseball.  Those sports are much more popular than baseball, especially with kids.  You can see this in how kids even approach sports in high school.  The cool sports to play are football and basketball.  Then baseball is sort of cool to play as it is more traditional and not as fast impact and then anything else is not really considered cool to play (unless of course you live somewhere where like lacross is more popular like the east coast or something).  Football and basketball get all the more talented kids as well.  The lebron james type althletes will be seen more in these sports than say baseball sure.

Yeah In completely agree with football talent.  I can’t help but also feel like football players are very short term athletes and almost a dime a dozen.  Five years this guy reigns supreme, then he bashes his head too hard and is out then another young one comes up through the ranks and so on and so on.  It is so reliant on physical brute strength that it’s cool on one level but also something that doesn’t seem very unique.  I like to see more in my athlete than just gorilla strength but I suppose can understand the appeal if that’s what you’re into.


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