NBA's sinking popularity should prompt image makeover
Posted: Thursday December 9, 2004 12:18PM; Updated: Thursday December 9, 2004 12:18PM
The NBA would be wise to utilize the PR acumen of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to help lift the league's image toward the height it reached when they both played.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Last week I spoke at a gathering that included about 75 boys' high school basketball players. Before I began I asked: How many of you like the NBA better than you like college basketball?
One youngster raised his hand.
One out of 75.
That sums up the disastrous public relations shape the NBA is in these days. And, no, they weren't all Caucasian kids from private schools.
I then asked the kids why and got a range of answers: NBA players don't try as hard as the college players. The NBA game is too slow and boring. I don't like the players all that much anymore. I liked the old guys, like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, better. So it went. Not a single kid mentioned the horrible brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which didn't surprise me: The problems of the league may have been crystallized in that near-riot. But they didn't begin there.
Commissioner David Stern never wants to hear about these things. He blames journalists for writing negatively about his league, ignoring the fact that the people who cover pro hoops are the ones who most stoutly defend it, as I regularly do and did at that gathering. But it's time for some serious action.
To reiterate a theme I've sounded off on before: Players in the NFL act more reprehensibly during games than NBA players do. Pro football has just as many criminals, convicted and otherwise, as pro basketball. But the NFL gets a pass because it has become our corporate sport.
Likewise, baseball is in the midst of a steroid scandal, which shouldn't surprise anyone who happened to notice that the University of Nebraska offensive line had seemingly taken up baseball. But though the Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi stories have been played prominently, their steroid intake will not taint the entire game.
But drug revelations in basketball (which, incidentally, there have not been many of lately)? Hey, they're all guilty is the conclusion.
That's just the way it is. Perception or reality, it doesn't matter anymore.
The popularity of the NBA is at an all-time low, which shouldn't be the case with the NHL locked out. It should've been the time to build but, instead, it's been one black mark after the other.
So for this week's five-pack, here are things the NBA must do to try to climb back into the good graces of the public.
1. At season's end Stern must immediately convene an all-star panel of players to discuss image.
His Dream Team would include players such as Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady. He probably wouldn't get half of them to show up. But he better keep working at it. If not Kobe, then Dwyane Wade. If not Duncan, then Ben Wallace. If not Hill, then Dirk Nowitzki.
Players, and the players' association, must get invested in the notion that the league is in trouble. That's partly why the NBA underwent a renaissance in the 1980s. Players such Magic, Jordan, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas understood the give-and-take involved in selling a sport that has never been America's favorite.
2. The league and the players' association had better sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement (they agreed jointly to extend the old one through the end of the season) with minimal headlines and jaw-flapping.
Any labor disagreement -- repeat, any -- is going to result in a near-revolution from the public. Do you hear a resounding hue and cry about the NHL's absence? I'm not. Sure, basketball is more ingrained in the culture than hockey, but management and labor better not take the chance that fans simply won't miss pro hoops.
3. The league must hold individual meetings -- call them seminars, clinics, if you like -- with each of the NBA's 30 franchises to explain both what constitutes civil behavior at an arena and establish standard procedures regarding game operation.
Eliminate a lot of the noise, the distracting sound effects made at the expense of the visiting team, the yahoo public address announcers who act like carnival barkers and do nothing but suck up to the home crowd. Invite in the season ticket-holders and young fans to talk about sportsmanship. Kids, and adults, sometimes have to be instructed on how to act. That's just the way it is.
Pro basketball arenas have gone way, way too far to create what long-time NBA observer Jan Hubbard calls the "sensory overload" that fires up fans and turns crowds into uncivil mobs.
4. Keep looking at ways to increase scoring.
As I write this, five teams -- Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento, Orlando and Seattle -- are averaging more than 100 points and Minnesota is on the verge. Heaven bless them. Last season only two teams finished averaging triple figures. The NBA game needs running and more running.
You know what's funny? NBA fans in the '50s and '60s never complained that their heroes didn't play defense, even though almost every team routinely scored better than 100 points. But fans today have the feeling that players don't D it up. Why? Because fans really don't know how to analyze defense. If fans like the players, like the game and feel that the players like the game, they will assume that it is being playing hard at both ends.
5. Market the game with more diversity and goodwill.
The NBA can hardly deny its connection to urban culture, nor should it. And if white people don't like it, that's tough. The problem is, there's little alternative. The only message that gets out is a message that many fans can't connect with.
The TNT commercials notwithstanding, it's been a long time since I've seen an NBA marketing campaign with humor, or seen any kind of effort to sell the game in a way that is soft and subtle rather than in-your-face. Use some of the players who were popular --Magic, Bird, Jordan (if you can get him) -- to either interact with today's stars or make a plea for fans to return to the game. Use players from opposing teams in spots to jack up competition. Show a different side to these guys other than the I'm-superhuman-and-you're-not message sent out by the shoe companies.
Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly used to say, half-jokingly, that coaching an NBA team required him to deal with 12 individual Fortune 500 companies. Right now, that's all the public sees -- a league of selfish millionaires. Reality or perception? It just doesn't matter anymore.
Seventy-four out of 75 agree.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.