The NBA Has a Perception Problem

— The league lacks large scale consistent visibility.

The NBA groomed me as a fan early on. It’s not impossible to imagine a universe where I stayed true my whole life, watching multiple games a week, buying tickets and apparel right up to the present day on the cusp of my forties. But that has not happened. Somewhere it lost my attention and judging by the NBA’s own numbers and analysis from media outlets like Fivethirtyeight, I’m not alone.

Somewhere along the line the NBA lost me and a large part of its cultural cache. Even with a powerhouse generation of superstars it has not recaptured its former place. Neither has it been able to hold onto its irregular gains in viewership. I’m not willing to just chalk it up to playing styles. I still enjoy games when I occasionally see one and wouldn’t mind watching…if the games were available to me.

I am a child of 90s basketball. I was a fan in what I’ll call the Dream Team Heyday, coming into a basketball consciousness at the auspicious moment when most of the members of the 1992 Olympic team were in their prime. The first year I paid close attention to the game was the 1991–92 season.

This made me an immediate Bulls fan and a natural basketball card collector. The golden summers when Mcdonalds marketed their basketball card lines, mixing the two finest pleasures a ten year old aspired to in 1992: eating at McDonalds and thinking about basketball.

The NBA is currently in another silver or golden age regarding storylines and superstars. I was even drawn back in over the last few years by the rise of the Warriors and the flashes of greatness on teams like the Rockets, Thunder and Bucks. But I’ve only watched during playoff time and I don’t have the level of interest I might have under optimal circumstances.

In his Fivethirtyeight article Owen Phillips posits mostly technical possibilities for the dropoff in overall interest in the NBA, a shift in playing style or lopsided distribution of star players. But it got me thinking about why I am not watching at a time when I know more of the players, storylines and stakes than I have since I was a teenager. And it’s the same reason I wasn’t watching in the first two decades of the 2000s.

The NBA is not on TV.

I know it actually is being broadcast. But I am not talking about cable or subscription. I mean TV, over the air broadcast. Television broadcast is about accessibility and things that are accessible are assumed to be important.

The NBA’s declared focus, as per Commissioner Adam Silver in a recent Washington Post interview, is on targeted interest groups and social media engagement. And maybe that’s the way to cultivate the next generation. But they lose their chance to be a large scale player in a cultural conversation that reaches outside the Twitterverse and NBA subreddits.

An intellectual property has to build [and maintain] a reputation to be seen as important. There are unspoken assumptions in our media attitudes. Cable is a narrow-cast medium, targeting market segments with boutique programming. Attitudes about it have grown up to reflect that fact.

Social media is splashy and loud and its users are engaged. But it is in actual fact representative of a narrow slice of the population, people who may be engaged today but what happens if their habits shift and they become more blasé consumers? Or the platform of engagement shifts? Then you’ve built a narrow cultural presence that may not withstand major changes. Limited visibility reduces the distance between you and disappearance.

There’s too much content out there to worry about everything, so a lot of people let the form media takes do the early decision making for them. If it comes through on their accustomed conduits it gets the benefit of the doubt and is more likely to be seen. If it’s tucked away on a cable channel or fragmented onto multiple uncoordinated platforms the casual watcher is more likely to become disinterested and just do something else. Which is one possible reason why the NBA’s veiwership gains over the last few years have not proven to be durable.

Currently the NBA is broadcast on an ad hoc mix of ESPN, TNT, FOX Sports local affiliates and NBA TV. Even if you have cable and thus access to most of those broadcasts the psychological impression is a mixture of overabundance and negligibility. For those that have it it’s everywhere to the point of unimportance. For those that don’t it’s just not an option.

Take the NFL as a counter example. Even with the spread of games onto four nights a week and sometimes more there is still a sense of occasion bred by concentrated and widespread accessibility. AFC on CBS, NFC on FOX. I know where to find it and it only asks one day for the occasion. Thus even through years of political controversy, stagnating storylines (I’m looking at you New England) and legal troubles the NFL’s status as appointment viewing and a topic of cultural importance has not really been challenged.

We can also take the example of the NBA’s heyday as a cultural institution. My era, the 90s. A lot of the credit goes to the personalities and talents and rivalries of that time period but the NBA was also packaged differently.

*cue John Tesh’s Roundball Rock*

Every Sunday from January to June throughout the 1990s there was reliably an NBA double header on NBC. NBC, the dominant network of the decade, Sunday, the day most people have off. No subscription needed, this was too important for cable.

Knicks vs. Bulls, Rockets vs. Spurs, Magic vs Pacers. Five minute clip packages opening the broadcast as Bob Costas broke down the stakes in the game over dramatic music and interview footage, building the rivalries to mythic confrontations that would reverberate through the ages. No one could mythologise in the moment better than the NBA on NBC.

They got so good at it that when I finally went to a pro game I was subconsciously shocked that it happened on a human scale. That the court was just a basketball court and the protean athletes were just people running back and forth tossing a ball. From my perch on the living room floor it seemed to hover in the stratosphere. It had been packaged as though it were meaningful and the league grew to embody that presumption of meaning.

Now it’s parceled out and tucked away on four to five separate outlets, only gracing broadcast television a few times a season when it drops in on a Sunday on ABC. I inevitably miss it because life happens and I can’t plan for what I’m not expecting. Sports and television are not the center of my life and I don’t think I’m unique in only watching what’s available and predictable. If the NBA wants to be treated as important and to assume a larger place in our consciousness it needs to signal its importance.

Stop relying on cable. Give us one or two over the air broadcasts billed as marquis on a predictable weekly basis. If you want us to invest in this relationship again you’ve got to meet us where we are and treat your product like it’s worth more than a weekday evening on cable or a few tweets and discussion threads. Treat yourself with confidence and us with consistency and people are way more likely to watch. I wouldn’t expect a return to 1990s level viewership but at the very least I’d tune in.

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