The NBA is facing a peculiar crossroads as it nears its 75th anniversary. It is an established sports league with compelling characters, dramatic competition, cultural relevance, state-of-the-art innovation, and a moral code that at least pays lip service to righting national and global wrongs. Yet it is also burdened by declining interest in the product itself and a challenging task to monetize a young audience whose consumption habits change by the second.

The 2020 bubble at Disney World was a microcosm of the NBA’s existential crisis. The very fact that it went more than 100 days without a single positive COVID-19 test by player, coach, or league personnel made it a rare bright spot in an increasingly dark world. Fortune Magazine called the NBA’s work “a case study in leadership,” and there are unironic calls for Adam Silver to head the country’s Coronavirus Task Force.

Yet for all those platitudes, there’s an ugly fact staring the NBA right in its face: way fewer people watched the sport for a variety of reasons. League ratings for the 2020 postseason were down 37 percent from last year and 49 percent from the 2019 NBA Finals. The NBA didn’t have the largest percentage drop among the major sports leagues who have all experienced drops in viewership this year that are anecdotally attributed to the pandemic, social activism, and the election. But the NBA's ratings decline was closer to the bottom than the top. The pandemic simply accelerated the larger trend of declining national, postseason, and (crucially) local TV ratings over the past several years.

Depending on who you ask, the NBA’s ratings decline is either a misleading indicator of interest exploited by bad-faith rabble-rousers or an imminent sign of doom. But league proponents and detractors racing to propose piecemeal tweaks or defend specific elements of the sport are both failing to see the forest for the trees. If the NBA really wants to bridge the divide between its widening cultural relevance and narrowing game interest, it must think more like a start-up on the verge of extinction than an established business.  

That requires asking one question: What is the overarching story of our product? Or, more succinctly, why do we exist?

Those may seem like pointless questions for an organization that generated nearly $9 billion in revenue in its last pre-pandemic season. But due to a combination of factors within and beyond its control, the NBA has put itself into a much more diverse and wider entertainment category than other professional sports. The good news is that its potential audience is vast. The bad news is that it is now competing for their attention against all forms of entertainment, not just sports leagues.

If relying on a force of nature like Curry or villainizing a foil like the Heatles isn’t sustainable, what can the NBA do? The answer is right under their noses. They need to start selling the game itself again.

This quest for wider popularity began decades ago under the late David Stern’s guidance. Without MLB’s tradition or the NFL’s inherent tribalism, the NBA sold itself as a league of stars, using its built-in advantage of intimacy to make the names on the back of the jersey matter as much, if not more, than the names on the front. When the faces of the league had mass popularity and stayed on one team in a large media market, the NBA could use its star-driven marketing strategy to build on enough of a foundation in more traditional elements of competition, hierarchy, and tribalism. It was well-equipped to sell the story of Michael Jordan, a marketing machine that fought off bold challengers to his throne while (almost) always wearing No. 23 for the Chicago Bulls. 

But that same story is a harder sell with stars who only possess some elements of the Jordan package: charisma, big market, team success, a positive approval rating, and a single-team identifier. That’s why the NBA has only experienced two significant viewership spikes in the last 22 years. One was when LeBron James was recast as a villain after joining the Miami Heat. The other was fueled by the unexpected emergence of Stephen Curry, a superstar who happened to possess all five elements. “Hope for a marketing unicorn like MJ or Steph” is not a sustainable strategy for maintaining widespread interest in your product.

The NBA has, of course, worked on appealing to new audiences. It’s spent billions on spreading the game globally and embraced social media to reach younger fans. It’s tacitly acknowledged and even highlighted soap-opera-esque transactional drama as a means of keeping the league in the wider conversation for the entire sports calendar. It continues to highlight their players’ outside interests and co-signed their necessary demands for racial equality and other key issues of our time. Those are reasonable decisions in a world where the traditional cable bundle is dying and consumer habits are shifting away from mass gatherings, whether they occur in person or as appointment viewing in front of TV screens. 

But the trade-off to those measures is a league whose overarching identity is more obfuscated than ever. To its credit and detriment, the NBA has become too many different things for too many different types of people. It has more casual fans who know about its product, but fewer who really connect to it. And while TV ratings are poor indicators of a sport’s popularity, they are still strong indicators of audience investment. The numbers, particularly locally, indicate a dwindling level of investment in the games that should power the product.      

If relying on a force of nature like Curry or villainizing a foil like the Heatles isn’t sustainable, what can the NBA do? The answer is right under their noses. They need to start selling the game itself again. 

Steph Curry Warriors Knicks 2018 MSG
Image via USA Today Sports/Adam Hunger

Modern basketball is beautiful to watch. As ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy often says between incoherent rants about officiating or instant replay, today’s players are remarkably skilled compared to their predecessors. The widespread adoption of the 3-pointer has democratized the sport and doubled the functional space on the court. Threes and layups may be the shots every team chases, but the strategies used to generate them are more diverse than ever. Size only matters when it’s accompanied by athletic skill. 

This should be the perfect tapestry to connect superhero artists to any kind of audience. The league has so many different types of stars with compelling backstories, diverse superpowers, and larger-than-life personas. Every single possession features an abundance of raw materials from which to build a compelling narrative. But in trying to define itself as more than just a basketball league, the NBA’s stakeholders have lost sight of their responsibility to curate the viewing experience of actual basketball. 

That’s reflected in a television product that is sanitized at its best and self-loathing at its worst, neither of which do the product justice. The game has transformed in the last five years, yet the networks are still using yesterday’s playbook. One network’s studio show is still built on the same personality-first feel as it was in 2001. The other’s lead broadcast team is the same as it was 14 years ago. While both feature many smart analysts, they’ve struggled to find voices who can demonstrate insight past their own experiences and/or convey the enthusiasm and intimacy necessary to connect audiences to the beauty of the sport. 

But this is not a challenge that can only be solved with better analysts. Players and coaches must provide more access to their craft, even if that means relinquishing some control of the narrative. A team sport built on intimacy must realize that the upside of allowing fans to live vicariously through its competitors far outweighs the risk of exposing viewers to rough language or revealing too much of its strategy to their opponent. Allowing viewers to listen in to key coaching huddles, as the WNBA does, would help them understand the complexity of the sport in real time. Additionally, showing a wider palette of emotions in its mic’d up segments, as the NFL does through extended segments like these, would help them feel the intensity of the moment. 

This is not the same thing as requiring athletes to talk only about the game and stand down in the fight against racial injustice. While polling data on the subject is incomplete, one recent Marist College survey revealed that just as many people were more likely to watch the NBA with “athletes speaking out on political issues” than less likely. Muzzling the players to appease the latter group isn’t just immoral. It’s also bad business when so many potential fans identify with the unquantifiable burden these athletes carry while trying to perform for their enjoyment. The answer isn’t to force players to shut up and dribble. It’s to better illuminate their remarkable ability to speak up and dribble. 

But to do that effectively, the NBA needs to get its own story straight. They aren’t selling specific people or a moral code. They are selling a game, one that’s more beautiful than ever and performed by highly skilled humans with superpowers and, yes, moral codes, that have been honed by their unique origin stories. That story can never be taken for granted. It must be sold, sold, and then sold again on every broadcast, no matter the venue or distribution channel. 

That’s how a start-up functions. In a time of great uncertainty, it’s how the NBA can regain its captive audience.

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