Things are what they appear. And they are not. The NBA Finals ratings had never been so dismal. And yet Lakers fans who were part of the 7 million who watched Game 6 couldn’t wait to buy Lakers stuff. On the one hand, we are asked to believe the ratings of professional basketball is ushering in a dark period in the sport. And then the next day, Lakers fans crash servers in order to buy merchandise.
What is clear by every metric used to study demographics is that the professional basketball fan, on average, is 42 years old, fifteen years younger than baseball, and eight years younger than football. The NBA fan is everyone’s younger brother. Habitually, the younger brother is flexible, has fluid boundaries, and communicates via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat.
While the game’s greatest plays are executed by those who don’t remember Michael Jordan’s three-peat, watching content at home 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.
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.
But what has allowed the NBA to soar to excessive heights grounded it during the pandemic with the aforementioned worst-ever ratings for the NBA Finals. Social media did its part but in an anemic way. Grounded by the pandemic the younger brother who befriends the NBA was pushing through the lockdowns in order to reclaim his life, even if that meant exposing himself to COVID. So be it. Drinking and partying to an excessive level was all that mattered and so what was left for the sport to absorb were its hardcore fans who don’t care what is happening in the electoral college or in Donald Trump’s lungs. They are all in. But professional sports don’t make money off of hardcore fans. They make money off of the casual fan and the casual fan deserted them during the bubble.
At the same time, as the pandemic was ruining people’s summers, the same racial tightrope that has been around for a century reminded us that the NBA is a black league with a white fan base. The NBA advantage in racial problem solving has always been fragile. Social justice conflation, on the one hand, and be angry somewhere else, on the other, has been willingly shepherded by Adam Silver. Silver earned social capital when he ran Donald Sterling out of 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.
Part of racial reconciliation is grounded in the ability to listen, be quiet, and then speak. Respect for diverse opinions, experiences, and desires sustains the community and incentivizes growth. But the callous murder of George Floyd changed the negotiations. There was a feeling of desperation, anger, and outrage.
The fan-player contract has fragility at its core. 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, is listened to.
But white fans who didn’t really care a rat’s ass about Breonna Taylor being murdered in her hallway sat this one out. Their love for black players has always been conditional. As long as they don’t have to acknowledge that their favorite players are black men (with everything that entails), then it’s a working partnership. But when NBA players changed the rules and challenged the fanbase, and put race in their neutral space, insisting that white fans relate to them as black people and not gifted athletes, it was always going to be a problem.
But it wasn’t the problem. White fans watched less but black fans watched more. Republicans covered their eyes (and ears) while Democrats were glued to the television. All sports saw a drastic crash in ratings, even those who didn’t have Black Lives Matter on the court. It’s a lazy argument that blackness is the reason the NBA’s ratings were terrible.
The pandemic changed habits and sports fans didn’t adjust. Instead, they just didn’t watch. What’s more disturbing, however, according to the Marist poll, is that 16% of basketball and baseball fans and 25% of football fans are not watching at all. Pandemic or no pandemic. Sports doesn’t occupy the same place in their lives as it once did.
It may be easier to tell pollsters while COVID is raging in the next room that sports as an experience isn’t the same. I’m not into it. Clearly, many have not wanted to accommodate the change in the sports calendar. Their lives continued without games, particularly since financial stress was front and center. (Millionaires complaints when you have to stand in a food line is a harsh reminder of the haves and have-nots). Perhaps in a year or two, if this sticks, leagues will have to adjust to the altered viewing habits of the American public. The monetization of athletes will change as consumer choices change.
The NBA will return with fans, perhaps as early as January but most likely in March. For a full season which is necessary to recoup lost revenue from this strange year means no NBA in the Olympics. Players won’t be able to monetize their patriotic experience. They will have to do it the old-fashioned way. Be a Laker. Win a title.