The day before, pre kickoff of the season’s first NFL game, fans had booed “racial unity,” at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Were the loutish fans moral monsters or were they just tired of being lectured like they were?
I agree that it seems like a lot of media types seem content to cover their ears and pretend any dissent from the “sports MUST be a social justice platform” take is a racist Trump supporter opinion only. For the 2020 Return Of Sports especially, a lot of people just wanted to tune all the bad shit out and be entertained. If you were an even moderately online, engaged person, you couldn’t escape talk of either COVID deaths or police killings and racism and protests. My guess is if you asked the average sports fan, they’d say that athletes can use their personal social media platforms for discussions about whatever topics they want, but the actual game should just be a game. Maybe that’s too much “shut up and dribble” but then again if I decided I wanted to spend my time at work promoting social justice causes rather than focusing on my job, I’d probably be fired. Either way, people wanted sports to come back as an escape from all the troubling, difficult things happening in the real world. Not so that athletes, many of whom have had scandals of their own from immoral behavior, can act as moral guides on hot button issues.
But the larger decline really seems way more indicative of a product that doesn’t really care about its fans or about most franchises. The majority of sports fans aren’t actually fans of the sport in the purest sense, they’re fans of a team. It’s why people hate on dominant players, at least when they’re not on their team. Most people don’t think, when watching Tom Brady, “wow, what an honor it is to watch possibly the most dominant quarterback of all time.” They think, fuck that guy, he sucks, he’s overrated, unless they’re a Patriots or Buccaneers fan. Why should Pelicans fans be that excited about getting a talent like Zion Williamson when you know he’s going to leave as soon as he can? At least Kawhi helped bring a title to Toronto before he left, but I can’t imagine it felt good to see your star player leave immediately after winning because he wanted to live in LA instead. And then you have LeBron complaining about play in tournaments, and you wonder why anyone should actually care. That seems to be way more of the problem with the NBA, why should anyone care about them or their teams unless they’re one of the few that have assembled an all-star team to compete against the other two or three all-star teams while everyone else typically has no shot.
This is a thing my friend and I often talk about. How, A: the media likes to assume what black people think and B: the more we suppress opinions we don't like the more dangerous they become. I don't know how you address the balance between free speech and people saying crazy s**t, but ostracising everyone who doesn't have the prescribed opinion is definitely not the way.
I think those who are knee deep in academic theories on gender, race, equality etc, need to realise not everyone is reading Foucault, De Beauvior or Bell Hooks for fun. You can't expect people to wake up one morning and be as woke as you and delete them from public life for questioning concepts they don't even understand (let alone agree with).
How we solve this? No clue. I do think in the real world, away from twitter and advertising, most people don't care. Not out of hate or ignorance, but are too busy trying to pay bills to care about what some enraged twitter people have to say about things that don't really effect how they keep their families alive.
We also castigate those who just want sports to be sports, but everything is so politicised, some people just want to watch sports and hear people talk about sports stuff. I don't need some corporation vomiting empty CSR in my face.
Wow. A nuanced, thoughtful inquiry. Excellent writing, Ethan. I like reading you in this format. Looking forward to more.
This was the best "Sports" article I have read in years! It is too bad it didn't reach the broad audience at the athletic though. If this was submitted and rejected by the A then I would understand your decision. Was it?
Some interesting ideas here, but unfortunately, Ethan does what many of us nowadays do: he seizes on one result that confirms his own opinion. One study done confirms his take that people don’t like it when athletes kneel, but *many* other studies show they don’t mind it and in fact, support it. Any good scientist goes with the *preponderance* of data; not the one outlier.
Ditto for his takes on NBA viewership decline. Notice that Ethan is always comparing viewership back to 2012 (he mentions “9 years ago here”, and in his other previous articles about it, he always refers back to 2012). Well 2012 was back at the peak of the LeBron/Miami Heat days - glitz not seen since Kobe/Shaq on the Lakers in 2000 - and was an outlier in terms of NBA viewership. The ratings were at a VERY unusually high point in 2012. If you compare today’s ratings to those back *before* 2012, there is not such a precipitous drop. In fact, the ratings nowadays are similar to the ratings in the mid 2000’s.
There could be many reasons why NBA ratings have dropped over the past 9 years. The most obvious one is that 2012 was an all time high so if you compare anything to an all time high, it will look worse. Or another reason: for many of these last nine years, the teams in major media markets such as the Knicks and the Bulls have sucked. Or another possible reason: the preponderance of foreign born players in the league. Fewer local boys or familiar faces from college hoops to root for could be driving down ratings. Another possible reason: players shifting teams so much more nowadays reduces fan loyalty to their teams. Or another reason: the preponderance of super teams means most teams and their fans know before the season begins that they can’t win the championship. Or another possible reason is load management: since teams now know that playing back to back games or 4 games in 5 days leads to a much higher chance of injury, they often rest their stars. Or another possible reason is all the egregious foul baiting going on by the lines of Harden/Trae Young etc. *Everybody* hates that. The point is that there are *so many* possible reasons for viewership decline, that claiming viewership is down because of social consciousness/BLM issues is ignoring so many other possible reasons - and using one outlier study to support it seems tenuous at best.
Also notice how Ethan doesn’t mention the WNBA. The WNBA has been *much more* politically active and socially conscious than the NBA. Yet WNBA viewership is up quite a bit; in fact, the WNBA is one of the only sports where viewership and ratings increased over the past year and a half. If Ethan is correct in maintaining that social consciousness is driving down the ratings, why are the WNBA numbers increasing so much? The WNBA doesn’t have the same problems with players switching teams so much or creating super teams or with egregious flopping/foul baiting. Most of their players also played several years in college, making them more familiar to viewers. Maybe that’s why their ratings are up so much. But there is absolutely zero doubt that the WNBA put social issues at the forefront *much* more than the NBA and also had their viewership/ratings go up.
The WNBA ratings increasing is just one data point, so I won’t say it categorically proves Ethan wrong. And many of us turn to sports to escape the all the frustrations of real life and the protests bring that right back to our faces. So who’s really to know? But Ethan calling BLM *far left* to prove his point is completely inaccurate. BLM is simply saying that Black Lives Matter. Which isn’t a radical statement at all. Over 95% of the BLM protests were completely peaceful. The 5% which had violence often had the violence initiated by the police or right wing protestors. The fact that here in the USA, the BLM can be painted as “far left” says much more about the radical right of the US (and keep in mind that politically speaking, the USA is far right of the norm among advanced nations with free elections - in 2012 a comparison of the policies and language used put the USA Democratic Party just *right* of the political center of all advanced nations with free elections, while the Republican Party was the most extremist right *major* party in all advanced nations. In 2016, the USA Democratic Party was barely left of center while the Republicans were again the most extreme right wing major political party). Racism is unfortunately alive and well in the US. It’s no accident that the Tea Party rose to prominence after Obama became President, and that racist tropes were a mainstay of Trump’s campaign and governance.
I think, therefore, that another way to frame the “decrease in ratings” argument is that the rise of racism and radical shift to the extreme right by one of the two major political parties is causing them to not watch a sport that has very few white players (and you can count the number of white NBA players born in America with just your hands). If the rise of social consciousness in the NBA is causing a viewership decline, the blame definitely belongs more with the radical right refusing to watch rather than with - as Ethan suggests here - the “far left” (quotes to indicate it’s not really a far left position at all) adopting an extreme position and hitting the rest of us over the head with it.
But the main point here is that there are SO MANY possible reasons for a ratings decline from the all time high in 2012, that using one outlier study to advance your thesis while ignoring all the other possible reasons and also ignoring the most obvious counter-example of the WNBA ratings increase makes this a rather one-sided and shrill take by Ethan.
Any chance we can get an article on ESPN ending The Jump and possibly de-emphasizing the NBA as the core of their brand ahead of the next TV deal negotiations? I don't think they would actually let go of the NBA, but it could give some negotiating leverage. From the NBA side they have to be asking if ESPN is really the best partner going forward for them at some point. Who is even their primary On-Air NBA personality now?
This is a pretty good description of the media-fan divergence but I’m wondering if you have thoughts on how/why this came to be. I’m inclined to favor approaches like Christopher Lasch’s in Revolt of Elites or Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public to explain the phenomenon from both sides of it (both books very much fit the vein of thought you’ve been following on your first few pieces).
The missing piece of this all I’m curious about, and maybe you have something in the works: what about the player-media and player-fan divergences respectively? Many of the players come from backgrounds where I imagine it’s hard for them to latch on to the buzzword politics without preference falsification. Having been around an ideologically diverse group like the Warriors featuring the likes of Iggy, Dray, Steph, and Bogut surely you have gathered insights on this angle too (to a lesser extent the Cavs with characters like Kyrie)?
(Sorry if I missed this being part of the piece. Was reading on the phone.)
I wonder how much the age composition of sports fans vs the athletes matter in this. In 1990 around 31% of the population were 45+. In 2020 it's 42%. So even if we have always had the "Back in my day" types, there is probably more of them now than ever. Couple that with the fact that maybe some younger people did not follow sports as much because for them today there are just so many more options (video games, etc.) This might make the fan population skew older than before and the clashes with the athletes and to a certain extent the sports writers.
I am not really sure I buy all of the idea that sports writing and sports have moved too far to the left for the fans, but a lot of fans do not dare say so. I find that reading comments online leads me to think that a lot of the fans that disagree can actually say so and they do find their outlet for doing so. And other people can see it too, so no one is afraid that they are alone in their belief necessarily.
I watched the 2020 playoffs and found the social justice messaging incredibly cringey as well, but I watched mainly because I was desperate for sports during the dog days of the pandemic.
The screaming, pants-shitting rage of denial among so many media types that politics were turning people off of the NBA was amazing to behold.
And I'm glad you mentioned the Limbaugh-on-ESPN days. This whole era feels very much like a mirror of the Bush era. Only instead of fighting terrorists, it's about fighting white supremacists. And instead of Christian Family Values being pushed, it's Woke Social Justice. What a time.
One unmentioned fact is that the very act of playing the national anthem at a fully domestic regular sporting is a ridiculous, nationalistic, US centric tradition. The mixing of domestic sports and politics can largely be traced back to the Conservative position of forced nationalism and the fetishisation of the military that happens at US sporting events.
I went to a Capitols game in NHL and three times they asked the crowd to stand to supporter one solider or other. Probably a drone pilot who had murdered people that day.
Great read, thanks.
I wonder if the forces we observe in social media are also playing out in sports and sports media. Perhaps Steven A.'s agenda is more driven by his knowledge of what it takes to maximize his popularity and less so by his moral compass, his understanding of his audience's leanings, and other factors.
Youtube AI shows that a diet of progressively radicalized content captures an audience. Watch a video about the marginal health benefits of coffee; then chain-watch AI recommendations, and an hour later you might be learning that drinking coffee with horse poop will have you outlive your grandchildren. It's tempting to see similar "audience capture" games on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
To continue the analogy then, a content creator sensitive to their audience's response - e.g., Steven A. Smith, Clay Travis, etc. - may intuit/understand that incremental radicalization works. Since popularity is a priority objective, you'd expect to see the polarization of the sports hosts in the relevant dimensions, including political/social.
A path to escaping from this feedback loop then might be discovering patterns whose gravity exceeds that of incremental radicalization.
I commented on your last piece essentially asking, "So what," and I appreciate you engaging directly with that question in this piece. So many criticisms I read rely far too much on assuming the reader just "gets" why wokism is bad, without doing any genuine thinking to explore why, and as a result I've become pretty numb to this kind of argument (just as I have with a lot of woke arguments about why X,Y, or Z are bad). The one thing I'd throw in here is that it's a fallacy to assume that the fans at Arrowhead are merely expressing a rational response to oppression, just as it's a fallacy for a lot of the "mainstream media" to assume that the woke legion on Twitter is merely expressing themselves in a rational response to oppression when they get mad about whatever the new milkshake duck of the day is. In both cases, people aren't actually having a rational negative response to what they're seeing -- they're actually just cosigning on to the opinions of cynics pushing an agenda, like Nike's admakers, or like Clay Travis. It's like in politics: the mainstream media is often elitist toward working-class conservative opinions. But anyone who actually spends a lot of time with working-class conservatives can tell you that in many (most?) cases, they don't form their negative opinion about the NYT, or WaPo from actually reading articles in those outlets -- they're just parroting the narratives they hear from their preferred media outlets, whether its someone like Travis, or QAnon, or whoever, who have their own cynical agendas. We have a real problem with assuming the worst in this country, on the right and the left, but it comes from inhaling too much gas from your own side more than anything else. As an example -- most of the conservative sports fans I know assume Colin Kaepernick hates America, because that's what Travis insists. It doesn't mean anything to them when Colin Kaepernick says, "I love America," in public. That's stupid.
Also: to be quite honest, the Afghanistan comparison is quite bad. That was not a situation of the masses suddenly realising that they all agree on something.
It was a different thing and shouldn’t be included here just because it’s recent.
I really appreciate your objective & common sense approach to this topic.
Prior to 2020, I was a hard core Warriors fan. I subscribed to League Pass and I've watched every Dubs game since 2015.
But then everything changed in 2020. I wasn't a political person before, never voted in my life, but the BLM riots completely changed me. I watched cities burned and business destroyed everywhere and thought the country has gone crazy. How can politicians and media justify this? It was so insane to me. Soon after I became a conservative (Traditional Conservative according to the Hidden Tribe), and voted for the first time in my life (Trump obviously).
So you can understand why I couldn't watch the NBA anymore. I wish I can enjoy sports without politics, but the constant BLM messages was just intolerable. I unsubscribed from League Pass and unsubscribed from the Athletics. Now that NBA has toned down its social justice rhetoric, I think I will try to watch again this fall.
Anyways, thanks again for your unbiased writing, it is very refreshing. I do have a suggestion. Since this is a new venture for you, I think you should write more fun/lighthearted articles at first (How Nike lost Curry is the perfect example), create a momentum, build up your subscription base, then slowly wade into the heavier/serious stuff like this piece and the Nike piece.
Again, Good luck and look forward to your future works!
How do these theories explain: (i) the next NBA TV deal is going to be massive, and the people negotiating it are motivated by purely economic factors and (ii) ratings for the Masters were also historically bad?
This is a very good article and I agree with much of what you wrote. I was wondering, do you think another reason for the NBA's decline might also involve the increasing prevalence of superteams? In 2020, once my Pelicans were obviously not going to advance from the bubble into the playoffs, I didn't watch a second of playoff basketball (for the first time in forever). My main reason was I had absolutely no interest in Lebron and the Lakers winning another title. I agree with you the messaging on jerseys was incredibly awkward, but my main beef was I'm sick of superstars colluding to play with each other in glamour markets and (small sample size, for sure) I have many friends who feel the same way.