Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The N.B.A. Conundrum

I love professional basketball, more specifically, the U.S.-based National Basketball Association (NBA). Globally-speaking, I'm not alone. Basketball is usually regarded as the second most popular sport in the world (following soccer). In certain parts of the world, particularly in Southern/Eastern Europe and Asia, it is considered as the most popular. The NBA is looked upon as the cream of the crop.

Surprisingly, professional basketball is barely the third most popular sport in its homeland, the United States (following professional football and baseball). Based on my logic, the NBA should be tied for first or at worst, the second most popular sport in the United States. Professional basketball is more dynamic than baseball and the games are typically shorter than both football and baseball games. Basketball offers more scoring than both its main competitors. Basketball offers the perfect mix of individualism and team-play. Basketball arenas offer the same perks that football and baseball stadiums offer. Most importantly, the best global players play in the NBA.

It's difficult to pinpoint why basketball lags behind in both fan passion and overall popularity. I believe that there are a few probable causes:

  • The Racial Divide. Due to the socio-economic and demographic realities of our country, the largest group of sports consumers is still a white, European-descendent population. The basis for this potential cause doesn't stem from the absolute portion of non-white athletes in the NBA (since baseball probably has comparable non-white proportions) but instead from the large absolute difference between the best white and non-white players currently competing. This difference is arguably smaller in professional baseball and probably non-existent in professional football. This extreme difference might foster some sort of conscious or subconscious bitterness from the largest NBA consumer group.
  • The Limited Live Experience. Arguably, experiencing professional sports in person builds passion and loyalty. Because NBA arenas are smaller than both football and baseball stadiums, a smaller absolute amount of fans is able to view any particular live NBA game and thus build a stronger connection to the sport. This is a relatively weak argument.
  • The Guaranteed Contract. Some have argued that professional basketball players are less inspired, dedicated, or driven than football or baseball players. That's tough to prove. But it is true that NBA contracts are typically of the guaranteed variety - once a player signs a contract for a certain amount of years and for a certain sum, that player is guaranteed to be employed for those years and paid that sum. No matter how little or how poorly the player plays, once the contract is signed it is basically written in stone. Most football contracts are not guaranteed. Many baseball contracts are guaranteed but baseball teams also usually have the ability to send players to the minor leagues (often to the detriment of their egos, current salaries, and future salaries). This difference in contract structure could breed a generally less driven collection of players and a weaker overall sports product.

I don't think these causes are the only reasons for why basketball lags, but they do begin to explain how the sport is potentially more flawed than its main competitors. Interestingly, two out of the three causes can be relatively easily fixed.


  1. First comment on the blog? I find this a refreshing and unique analysis of a situation that has been receiving significant coverage lately. Points 1 and 2 above are particularly interesting to me. On number 1, I agree with the points made and think the point can potentially be taken a step further - it's very possible that basketball is actually starting out at a disadvantage to the other traditional (e.g. baseball, football, and even hockey) sports in the US because "European-descendent" parents push their children into sports other than basketball as they feel this is a better cultural fit. At the same time, they are pushing their children to become interested in - and fans of - sports other than basketball.

    While the other two points are legitimate, I tend to question there effects in this situation as they are not unique to basketball. Particularly the argument that a limited live fan base hurts the sport - football teams have 8 home games a year, and hockey has a similar amount of games and arena sizes. Only baseball can more easily draw more fans into stadiums in a given season. I'll save my thoughts on guaranteed contracts for another time, as there many points to be made both for and against them.

  2. You are the first, congratulations.

    I think you're right about the second point. It is somewhat flawed. But I do think that the general arena structure of the NBA does negatively affect popularity somehow - either through size or layout...not completely sure.

    Do you think that parents push their kids into sports they believe their kids have a chance to become professionals in, or is that not even on their minds?