First, let me thank those readers who inquired via email about my well-being after an unannounced two-day hiatus. I and my long-suffering wife are both well; the hiatus was due to a lack of Internet access and nothing more. Thanks again…
Last week, I wrote about Kyrie Irving’s declaration that he would not be speaking to the media this year and that he would let his playing do the talking. My position then – and my position now – is that I would miss his trenchant commentary about as much as one would miss an ashtray on a motorcycle. Being a master of not leaving well enough alone, the NBA jumped to the fore and fined the Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie Irving $25K each for not fulfilling contractual obligations to appear and speak with the media for scheduled events. Oh swell…
First, the fines are meaningless. The Nets’ majority owner, Joseph Tsai, has a reported net worth of $9.3B according to Forbes; the value of the Nets’ franchise is $2.6B. Kyrie Irving will make $33.5M this year and a total of $71.7M over the next two years. Even if the Nets and Irving were fined $25K every week for a full year, it would not impose any financial hardship on either party. This is a feckless gesture by the NBA.
Moreover, the fine gave Irving a platform to expand the expression of his current perception that the media are not worth his time. He referred to them as “pawns” and that he chose not to spend his time talking to pawns. Congratulations to the NBA; you just improved your public image with that sort of statement from one of the players you market as a “star”.
The NBA has problems. Those problems are significant but not fatal – – unless the NBA decides to make them fatal. The core of the set of problems facing the NBA is demonstrated by diminishing interest in the NBA product. The playoffs in the “Orlando Bubble” were a huge success from the point of view of epidemiology; the playoffs in the “Orlando Bubble” were a disaster in terms of television ratings. Let’s get one thing clear:
- Epidemiology is important to the CDC and medical practitioners; those folks do not care about TV ratings.
- Television ratings are important to the NBA; the basketball mavens have only a passing concern about matters epidemiological.
The year 2020 forced lots of people to learn how to do without things that they had previously taken for granted but found out that they were pretty important. No, I am not referring here to toilet paper; I am talking about family events and travel and other sorts of social interactions. People learned how to cope with all those things and had extra time on their hands even as they developed those coping mechanisms – – but they did not invest much of that “extra time” in watching the NBA playoffs. The TV ratings for the Finals were down about 40%.
- Memo to Adam Silver: We learned to live without important stuff in 2020. We can easily live without the verbal stylings of Kyrie Irving in 2021. If he announced that he would be making an homage to Marcel Marceau for all of 2021, my reaction would be to shrug my shoulders and wish him well.
Why does the NBA have fan problems? Let me throw out a couple of ideas; consider these food-for-thought instead of proclamations:
- I think that sports in general has become far too immersed in matters of virtue signaling with respect to social issues. Sports are diversions; when I sit down to watch a sporting event, I strongly prefer to put my concerns about politics and social injustice(s) and economic inequality aside for a couple of hours. By the way, I believe that ardent sports fans similarly prefer to put aside their concerns about pennant races when they take to the streets to demonstrate in favor of or to protest some societal situation that is also important to them.
- I think some people still react unfavorably to the “NBA/China thing”. Recall that Darryl Morey was vilified for tweeting his support of Hong Kong’s freedom protesters – – and the NBA sought to silence/punish him to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues associated with China. Lots of basketball fans are also supporters of the Hong Kong freedom movement.
- I think some people react unfavorably to the NBA’s complete embracement of the Black Lives Matter movement. Juxtaposed with the “NBA/China thing”, that embrace seems to be opportunistic to say the least. Moreover, the NBA force feeds Black Lives Matter to TV viewers with logos on the court and uniform labeling. The fact is that some folks do not like that.
- The NBA did without fans in the stands for its final regular season games and playoff games in the “Orlando Bubble”. That is a significant revenue stream for the teams because ticket prices for NBA games are exorbitant. Obviously, the NBA has learned to deal with the social injustice of income inequality since it prices its live product such that a significant fraction of the community cannot afford to attend.
- I think sports fans pay attention to events when there is a semblance of competitive balance. Over the past several years, the NBA has lost that element; players have now decided to “bunch up” to form a few “super teams” leaving the rest of the league as “marginalia”. I for one am far less interested in seeing any of the “marginalia teams” play one another or play one of the “super teams”. Of the 30 NBA teams in action now, I think 25 of them are “marginalia”.
The NBA will begin its regular season next week; ESPN has already been filling airtime with a few exhibition games. I think there are a few questions/challenges that will orbit the NBA for much of the season. How the league – and the players – will deal with those questions and challenges might chart the near-term future of the NBA:
- There will be loads of attention paid to the Houston Rockets and the Washington Wizards based on their blockbuster trade of Russell Westbrook and John Wall. But … what if both teams just stink…?
- Early on, there will be a focus on players who are coming back from lengthy and serious injuries – – e.g. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, John Wall. However, that focus is not sustainable for an entire season, so what’s next?
- Will there be fans in the stands this year? When and where will that happen? Should there be a league-wide rule about this, or should it be dependent on regional issues/regulations?
- Inside the “Orlando Bubble” teams maintained competitive balance because there were no significant outbreaks of COVID-19. Absent the protection of the “Orlando Bubble”, can teams/players keep up that level of availability? Player absences can significantly affect any semblance of competitive balance.
Finally, let me close today with one piece of particularly good news relative to the NBA.
- Hubie Brown – at age 87 years – will be back on the microphone doing color analysis for NBA games on ESPN.
- Brown sat out the “Orlando Bubble” time, but he will be back this year. He will “work remotely” at the beginning of the season and adjust as makes sense during the season.
- Hubie Brown adds value to the games. It is good to know he will be back.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………