NFL anxiety over player insurrection and fan backlash and ratings debacles buried the lead when the NBA opened their season two weeks early. Unlike their NFL brethren, there was little discontent, hardly a peep on the black nationalism front. Not a protest nor raised fist on day one.
The summer exhaustion made everyone take a breath.
Kyrie Irving shunned his LeBron James experience. Chris Paul ditched Doc Rivers. Kevin Durant made some interesting Twitter decisions. Lonzo Ball was prematurely anointed as a star. Steph Curry and _______ (fill in the blank) were salty about Donald Trump. Dwyane Wade rejoined buddy LBJ. Carmelo tried to reverse his recent history.
While the NFL stabbed itself in the heart with eyes wide open, the NBA was ripe with anticipation particularly since the NFL’s unwatchable feast of games made the eyes bleed with boredom.
The NBA capitalized on the NFL inertia with their customary regardless of the score highlight- pass, dunk, crossover-even among the bad teams. There was always something to see.
20 games in, the game itself, and all of its storylines, have triggered ratings highs for the first quarter of the NBA season, compared to last year.
ESPN has been the big winner in the tsunami of fan love. ESPN NBA ratings for Wednesday and Friday night telecasts are up 18% over last year. More importantly, ratings are up 33% in the holy grail of customers 18-49. The biggest game for ESPN, ratings wise, was Warriors-Thunder, a Thunder win.
TNT is also seeing an increase in viewers, up 15%. It’s prime target audience has increased by 11%. TNT’s biggest game was opening night Celtics-Cavs when Gordon Hayward had his leg crushed.
Why is the NBA succeeding when the NFL is desperately failing, despite living in a NFL world? Take your pick.
The professional basketball fan, on average, is 42 years old, fifteen years younger than baseball, and eight years younger than football (according to Magna Research). The NBA fan is everyone’s younger brother. Habitually, the younger brother is flexibile, has fluid boundaries and communicates via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat.
While the games greatest plays are executed by those who don’t remember Michael Jordan’s three-peat, at home watching content to excessive levels are those phone addicts compulsively consumed with texting, tweeting, streaming, talking. They are a walking PR bubble for the league they fetishize, a volunteer corps who spreads the NBA message 24-7 without being on the league payroll.
Modernity has not passed the NBA by. The league has wholly embraced the social media culture of instant reaction and digestion and even outrage. Players are available if they want to be available, no sanctioned press conference like the NFL. NBA players, stars included, are accessible; there is something very ordinary about their exchanges with fans that creates an illusion of partnership.
The Revoultion Will Not Be Televised
The same racial tightrope that has torn the NFL apart is even more pervasive in the NBA; the numbers skew heavily towards a black league and a white fan base. The NBA advantage in racial problem solving is subtle. Social justice anxiety, on the one hand, and be angry somewhere else, on the other, has been willingly shepherded by Adam Silver who NFL owners wanted to hire for themselves. Silver earned social capital when he ran Donald Sterling out the league for racist behavior that undermined the labor force whose energy and support Silver needed to fulfill his partnership agenda. Respectfully, Silver has never undermined the players in public as a group, nor on a smaller scale, even in disagreement. The opposite is the Silver strategy. He has allowed NBA players to remain invested in systemic issues that affect them away from the game and at the same time accepting, as a white man of privilege, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
The NBA is a community too with tribal patterns, values and responsibilities. Part of racial reconciliation is grounded in the ability to listen, be quiet, and then speak. Respect for diverse opinons, experiences and desires sustain a community and incetivizes growth. Because the league is diverse on the management level, the optics of inclusion, even if it is window dressing, gives the impression of support. The league has proven it can withstand player conflict by working collectively and not individually. It doesn’t fear player power as the NFL does.
But here is the difference between the NFL: NBA fans accept the contract. The players are black with black lives. The fans are white with white lives. The entertainment connects the two; the game creates partners out of strangers. There are issues that crop up, naturally, when stakeholders with a conscience have different perspectives. But as a whole, the group is bigger than the sum of their parts. The league works for everyone, fans included, when no one is disenfranchised, when everyone, even fans, are listened to.
It’s Not Kissing Your Sister
The playoff outsiders are interesting and make sense. The Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki saying goodbye and at the same time Dennis Smith Jr. is learning the ropes. The Lakers have Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram. The Knicks are the Kristaps show. Charlotte has Kemba and Dwight Howard, Phoenix has anointed Devin Booker to take and make every shot. It’s not just about LeBron and Steph and Boogie and Damian and Durant.
The exceptional teams sustain the league in the post season but talent and highlights are dispersed throughout the league on a nightly basis. Someone is levitating an I stole your soul dunk. Someone is reversing a layup. Someone is jacking up 10 threes a game and making 8 of them. Someone is getting ejected. Some team is scoring 140 points. Someone is crossing over and creating humiliations. Someone is at the foul line 24 times and missing a bunch of them. Someone is hitting a game winner. Someone is missing a game winner.
The NBA, more than any other sport, is about moments. Afterwards, when the game is over and the arena is empty, what you bottle up and take with you is that one play that had you shaking your head. The NBA has no middle. It is not a tie. It is not about kissing your sister. It is about being big or being small in a stressed out moment while fans are watching with joy or disgust.