All the Other Sports Have the Same Problem
At least the NBA is well positioned to make the hard choice
Seems like I kicked up some dust over not being impressed by the In Season Tournament’s viewership numbers, decent 4.6 mil return on the Laker title game notwithstanding. Someone from the league even sent me an angry email over it. That’s fine, people can disagree, but let’s take a step back rather than single the NBA out for scrutiny. Because, it’s worth pointing out that most sports face the same challenges nowadays.
Due to those challenges, it’s just so hard to create regular season events like the IST and have them gain lasting traction. One example of an invented regular season hit was Baseball’s Field of Dreams Game, which drew over six million viewers in 2021. When MLB ran it back in 2022, about half as many people watched. That doesn’t mean the game was a bad idea or a failure. It’s just more evidence that a league can add an exciting element to its regular season, but find it difficult to sustain enthusiasm over it.
I could dump on baseball for losing its purchase within America just as easily as I could dump on basketball, but the greater truth is that both are losing, over time, and for the same basic, big picture reasons. As with so many topics, I keep returning to this Kurt Vonnegut passage about why American couples started fighting, post industrialization:
When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: “You are not enough people!”
The “You are not enough people!” principle applies in other circumstances, topics that don’t even require that YANEP explanation. What I mean is, we often are fighting about smaller issues that result from one big issue. Until the big cause is dealt with, the smaller disappointments and frictions will continue to eat up focus. The sports league version of “You are not enough people!” is, “There are too many games.”
Too Much Noise, Not Enough Signal
While I’m fairly critical of how the NBA media ecosystem is heavy on league cheerleading, it’s worth noting that the sport isn’t uniquely challenged. Indeed, all the major non football leagues have the same exact problem, albeit with their own flavors of related issues: Oversaturation.
Before, it was fine to have too many games, preferable even in an analog world. The explosion of entertainment options in the Internet era meant that inventory sports lost out to events-based sports. Over the last decade, the NBA, MLB and NHL leaked audience. All of those sports claim roughly about half the audience they once did for championship events. In contrast, over that decade time span, the NFL held steady, college football gained, while event-anchored challengers Formula 1 and UFC emerged onto the scene.
We could cite “small sample size,” or America’s particular penchant for football, but I think the pattern is pretty clear. There’s a lot of noise in the culture, and more every year, which disadvantages the inventory sports. The sports that rarely hold events can cut through all that noise, and act as the kind of gathering point we used to have in the old monoculture days. The sports with constant games just fade into the background, though. When the Kansas City Chiefs played their early morning Germany game, an astounding 94 percent of televisions were tuned to it in the Kansas City market. Meanwhile in Kansas City, the scuffling Royals lost nearly a third of their audience last season. Obviously it helps to win, but baseball in general saw disappointing audience results despite inspired reforms like the “pitch clock.”
More so than the actual game play, MLB’s big problem is “162.” Same with basketball, only the big problem is “82.” Why don’t players care as much game to game? Why do they load manage? You can upbraid them for losing certain values, but the biggest factor in the decision making is “82.”
And so we’ll argue a bunch of other issues, often as though “too many” isn’t the main one. Is baseball’s game play too slow? Did it have cumbersome rules? Is its culture not resonant with a younger and more diverse America? Similarly, is hockey too White? Is basketball hurt by the lack of loyalty to teams? Is the NBA too woke?
These questions can all be debated but none are the Big Issue: Too many games for people with too many options. In the short term, all these sports are getting or will get their big TV money payday. Long term though?
My firm belief is that all these sports will experience a slow bleed until they make the hard choice of cutting their schedule, with an eye towards games becoming events. This shouldn’t be a controversial opinion because these sports have already been slowly bleeding. Any sort of razzmatazz you throw at your season won’t matter much over time, so long as over saturation is your dominant issue. You can change your playoff format. You can create play-in tournaments and In season Tournaments. You can create a Youth Advisory Board to consult on how to pitch the kids of tomorrow. The trend will remain the same.
The good news, for the NBA specifically? No sport is better positioned to make the hard choice. Basketball is still discussed frequently on national sports talk shows, so any big reform would be broadcast widely. More to the point, the league wouldn’t seem drastically altered by installing something like the Arnovitz Model of 44 games, with regular Tuesday/Thursday intervals where everyone plays. The main sacrifice would be short term money/risk, which ownership obviously would be fearful to take on. Perhaps they never will, for the same reason a baboon never lets go of the salt in a salt trap.
Until that happens, though, the slow bleed, over time, will continue for all the inventory sports. Today, you can’t stop that bleed because it means parting with money. Too bad. It’s the only way to forestall the day when “not enough people” describes your fanbase.
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