Please Like My Sport
It's actually normal to want your sport watched by others
The more I think about it, the more I doubt my first instinct on how to respond to Sopan Deb of the NYT. Following news of the NBA getting 10X’d in viewership by the NFL on Christmas, Deb was questioning why some online NBA fans are invested in whether the league is getting watched. It’s a fair question.
My initial impulse, as occasional Sports Business Journalism Man, was an appeal to substance. As I conveyed to Sopan, if you follow the league, you’ll notice it transforms in response to dips in popularity. If the NBA was growing, there’s no tournament within the season, no play-in playoff structure, and probably no Mark Cuban selling the Mavericks. These are massive changes for a league that’s operated more or less the same way for decades. So, from a media perspective, if you care about the NBA, you care about how it gets altered, which is all informed by how many people care about it.
Here’s the problem with my response: It’s not the real heart of the issue. True, there are massive structural and financial implications as sports leagues attempt to forge a path through the decline of cable television. It’s fair game to follow those stories and to understand them. I personally enjoy writing about how a quirk in the Nielsen counting system caused the NFL to steal Christmas. But going on those deep dives won’t answer the basic question raised by Sopan’s first tweet: Why do NBA fans care about their league’s popularity?
Obviously there’s the online component of conservative commentators hating the NBA and media members responding by leaping to its defense. There’s a whole racial dimension to why those battle lines are where they are. But I think that conversation has confounded a more basic one about whether it matters if basketball remains culturally relevant in America. That’s not purely a financial question. It’s easier to act like it is, because it takes you out of the realm of squishy sentimentality. It can be hard out on the Internet to simply say, “I care about this because this is how I feel.”
First off, before we get into it, I should note that I actually disagree with Deb’s overall framing. I’ve seen many online NHL fans who are sensitive to their sport’s relative status and NFL fans who delight in their league’s dominance. I believe it’s not uncommon for fans of a sport to want that sport thriving. So the answer to “Why do you care?” is this: Because it’s normal to care. While “please like my sport” is mocked on the internet as an attitude, it’s pretty understandable. We like to see the growth of what we like.
Why? For a variety of reasons, but to my mind, with sports, it’s mostly because it’s enjoyable to watch a big happening that connects you to others. I recall something Subscriber Gene Parmesan mentioned, quoting Friend of Pod Chuck Klosterman from an old BS Report appearance (I apologize if Chuck never actually said anything like this). As Gene put it, in response to my article on inventory sports:
This reminds me of a Chuck Klosterman quote from a BS Report from like 2007 that I still think about all the time.
"When I'm going somewhere with my wife, the ONLY thing I'm thinking is 'I hope someone there likes sports.'" He went on to say it doesn't matter the sport, the team, whatever - you can talk to that guy. 10 years later I got married and that is what I think about every time.
This comment had me thinking about when I see my brother in law at family functions. He’s a great guy and I like him, but we’re pretty different despite both having two small children. He’s a highly skilled electrician and conversant in a lot of fields I know nothing about. He’s extremely offline, to his credit, so what I do probably seems odd to him. He’s got a normal job, with physical consequences in the real world. I’m impressed with his ability to seamlessly build and wire complicated accoutrements into his house, but when he explains how it happened, I’m pretty lost.
He likes the Niners though, and when that topic comes up, I’m not so lost. I can shift from nodding my head as though I know the basics of constructing a sink outdoors to giving actual strong opinions on a subject. Now it’s a conversation. Now I’m relaxed. Wish I could do this with the NBA, but my brother in law, like everyone else in the family, doesn’t follow it closely. Anyway. The basic point is that it’s nice when more people care about what you care about. Perhaps you’re different, like the hipster who prefers music from obscure bands, but most individuals want to feel connected to something larger.
And it’s not just that. The bigness of an event alters its very nature, often enhancing it. Taylor Swift’s Eras tour was such a phenomenon in part because it became such a phenomenon. The hype built on itself and the attendees were primed to be a part of something special. People want to participate in history. For a more sports specific example, there’s that old line about how Bobby Thompson’s famous 1951 home run was “seen” by the millions who would later claim to have been there. This is a major appeal of sports, often unstated: Witness something that endures in the public consciousness. When I was covering the 2016 NBA Finals, I knew it had that juice. I could sense that, beyond the great basketball, this was cultural history, because so many people were invested. And yes, I cared about that. I think I would have cared about it even if I wasn’t a media member.
What I’m saying is that audience growth or decline isn’t just an economic story or a league structure story. It is, principally, a cultural story. I’m not stirred by this old Jordan Brand ad because Nike made X amount off of Mike; I’m into the ad because it reminds the viewer that their cherished Jordan memories are shared by so many others as well, to the point of inspiring future generations. MJ had that juice.
I’m sometimes accused of hating the NBA because I don’t enjoy aspects of its recent leadership, but the truth is that my sensitivity to what I dislike is connected to caring about its resonance. I remember what it was like to eagerly anticipate big NBA on NBC games. I also remember the sport’s early 2000’s nadir, and how Bill Simmons would joke about being one of the NBA’s last remaining fans. The former era felt like witnessing history. The latter era felt like a grim detour into wilderness. So I prefer the former, and I think many do as well. I also enjoyed when rule changes in the 2000’s led to “Seven Seconds or Less” and a greater popular NBA Renaissance.
But you don’t have to claim similar memories to ask the question of whether it’s a big deal if America’s best game becomes more of a niche. Does it mean anything if the NBA becomes something disregarded by most sports fans as peripheral noise in a time of information inundation? Would this matter financially? Economically? Structurally? I’d argue it just matters if the NBA matters, and those other considerations are downstream of that larger truth.
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