Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why the NBA Will, Eventually, Overtake the NFL

Adam Silver, Establishing Rank
Tonight, the conference finals (i.e., the final four of the NBA) began, and as basketball is one of my great loves, along with marketing and advertising, I have a few words to say about it. Trust me, we will get to marketing and advertising fairly soon.

When I was growing up (yes, too long ago) in the US, there was a much closer race for the top spot in American sports. For big events, nothing was bigger than boxing. If teams from big markets were in the World Series, it got a lot of attention.  More people seemed to care about tennis, horse racing, the Olympics, and golf. You would constantly hear about how soccer / rest of world football was going to be the most popular sport later. Pro and college football might have been in the top position, but it was debatable, and coverage outside of the regular season and playoffs was rare.

At the time, the NBA was in real trouble. While individual players were captivating, the Finals were on late night tape delay (remember, not nearly the same number of channels to put games). The league had major recreational drug abuse issues, more than occasional brawling ugliness, and a bloody civil war around the birth and death of a rival league. Pro basketball was a distant third among league sports, and in many major local markets, fourth, behind hockey.

In the past three decades, boxing has faded dramatically from its health risks and scandals, with elite athletes moving on to other sports. Baseball is fighting against very graying demographics, a seeming disconnect with the current pace of life, lower offense after the steroid scandals, and longtime inequities between markets that seem to sap the life out of less endowed franchises. The Olympics just do not have that same zing without Cold War tensions, and are rife with scandal. Horse racing and tennis have gone back to special event only status. Soccer is bigger than ever before, but still fairly fringe outside of World Cup years. The two leagues that have grown the most are clear – football and basketball.

At times, football’s prevalence seems total. The Super Bowl enjoys media cheer leading for advertising. Time-shifted television ratings has made the high numbers for NFL games much more comparably valuable. The off-season is much less shorter than it used to be, with massive coverage of previously ignored events like the scouting combine, draft, and preseason games. Every time that the league seems to be in danger – from domestic abuse scandals, head trauma cover-ups and settlements, prominent players going to prison, cheating scandals and more – the ratings only seem to go up. Arguing against the league just continuing to run roughshod over the rest of the American scene seems silly.

Yes, that is a tell.  The American scene.

The NBA, unlike the NFL, is in Los Angeles and Canada. Unlike the NFL, professional basketball is played on six continents, and the best players from all of those areas are in this league. International basketball from the Olympics has done wonders to keep the league in the hearts and minds of the world. There are legitimately great players from all over. Knowledgeable NBA fans routinely stare down players in minor leagues and overseas, and the league’s ability to develop its own domestic feeder league has done more to improve the quality of play.

It’s not just limited to these factors. Professional women’s basketball is also a worldwide pastime, with Olympic medals and leagues on multiple continents. (Professional women’s football… involves lingerie. Not really worth discussing.)  The NBA has amazing penetration on a merchandise and awareness level, especially in Asia and South America. Unlike football, players in their prime do not retire due to health concerns, and parents do not feel conflicted to let their children play the game. The best players in the game now (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden), unlike in the past, have the ball in their hands from the start of a play, rather than requiring a pass from a lesser-known teammate as they grind their way into position near the basket. Three point shooting from long distances has changed the game fundamentally to allow for more players of comparatively modest height to shine, and the league’s crackdown on flagrant fouls and physical play has made for a more free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing game, with more scoring. The NBA is already, by many measures, the #2 league in the US.

Taking over #1 will not happen right away. The NFL has a huge advantage in fantasy league play and gambling interest, an aggressive play towards games in London and Los Angeles, and rule changes on special teams and tackling to make the game less dangerous to the long-term health of its players. If the league adopted minor leagues with relegation, along the lines of English Premier League football, it could likely adopt a year-round schedule in 2-3X the number of markets, and grow dramatically, at the cost of MLB and college football. Even without dramatic upheaval, football is always going to win on a visceral level, and the comparatively rare nature of games will prop up the NFL #1 narrative for a long time.

Unfortunately, football without violence, on some level, is not football, and runs the risk of having a splinter league start to serve the part of the market that wants real contact.  As for big events washing away all problems, well, we could have said the same thing about boxing, not so very long ago.

Personally, I’m not really “rooting” for either. I’m well past the event horizon of being able to choose whether to watch a sport or not; I’m a lifer. Younger folks, newer markets, casual fans? That is where the movement will come. The parallels for marketing and advertising pros that may be outside of their target demographics, or locked into doing things as they have always done, are obvious… and who knows, this might also impact some of your long-term planning, in regards to sponsorships, signage, and so forth.

Oh, and one final thing… go Warriors!

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You've read this much, so connect with me on LinkedIn. And for the record, we do free RFPs for fans of every NBA franchise, and don't even increase the rate for Celtic or Laker fans. Honest.

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