Tyrese Maxey #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers speaks with Tyler Herro #14 of the Miami Heat. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The NBA is generally derided as the “most wok” of the major sports leagues, but you wouldn’t know that from the on-court product.
The games are presented as mano-a-mano contests between star players. Macho posturing after a clutch dunk or three-pointer is commonplace. The Schoolyard Taunts – “He Can’t Guard Me!” It’s too small ! – are regularly broadcast in the living rooms and sports bars of millions of viewers. This year, playoff crowds were treated to the thunderous chants of “Whoop That Trick,” the Memphis Grizzlies’ semi-official rallying cry. the last dancearguably the most successful entertainment product of the lockdown era, portrayed the league’s greatest player as a borderline sociopath who alienated teammates and opponents with his win-at-all-costs mentality (compare that to the harmless studied of Tom Brady, the aging face of the NFL).
Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of the NBA’s business strategy. A league that is now run by the same left-wing technocrats who run our universities, federal agencies, and corporations is stuck marketing a product that appeals to fans’ most basic competitive and tribal instincts. From its entanglement with China to the changing style of basketball play, the NBA has struggled to manage this tension.
Over the past decade, the NBA has attempted to balance domestic popularity, international expansion, and its burgeoning reputation as the most progressive and forward-thinking of major sports leagues. Several incidents have upset this delicate juggling act. The beginning of this era dates back to 2012, when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was kicked out of the league for making inflammatory racist comments on a leaked audio tape.
The Sterling case, currently in development as a prestige TV drama, was the first major challenge in new commissioner Adam Silver’s career. Silver was widely hailed for getting rid of Sterling, a reviled figure whose crude racism and shady business dealings made him an easy target for ostracism. But the controversy was a taste of an era of political upheaval, erratic ratings and league-wide controversies that would prove more difficult to manage than an obnoxious owner.
In 2019, Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey caused an uproar in China for tweeting his support for Hong Kong protesters. Morey has since joined the Philadelphia 76ers, and it was reported that his job at Houston was in serious jeopardy for endangering the Rockets’ lucrative presence in the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the NBA’s lukewarm defense of free speech and criticism of NBA superstar LeBron James’ Morey’s tweet, among other things, has prompted a massive national backlash.
Since then, the league’s embrace of Black Lives Matter activism and leftist slogans has coincided with a noticeable drop in ratings, a connection few want to publicly admit. The league has also been dogged by the Covid controversy. Eccentric Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving’s public refusal to get stung cost him a home game season due to New York’s vaccination mandate.
The question of China, meanwhile, persists like a festering sore. A recent ESPN profile of Taiwanese-born Nets owner Joseph Tsai has contrasted his BLM donations in the United States with his blatant silence on human rights abuses in China.
These political disputes exposed the awkward marriage between NBA leadership and a fanbase that still yearns for tribalism, old-fashioned competition, and doesn’t relish being lectured by the likes of Tsai. Historically, the NBA has thrived on franchise rivalries and star-centric dynasties. The league is still churning out stars at a reliable rate (the skill and athleticism of the average NBA player has never been more impressive), but the connection between cities and players is increasingly tenuous. Meanwhile, the advent of sports analysis changed the style of league playcreating a cohesive brand of basketball that emphasizes efficiency over showmanship.
The star who epitomizes this new breed of NBA mercenaries is James Harden, who changed teams twice in 13 months after ostensibly signaling his displeasure on the court. Harden favors three-point backs and zero fouls, a joyless approach to the game that is off-putting to casual fans. By conventional measures, Harden’s career was an unqualified success. We just don’t know who wants to see him play basketball.
Harden’s hyper-efficient style reflects the changing face of NBA management. A league that was once run by local business moguls has become an investment vehicle for tech titans and venture capitalists. These savvy newcomers have brought their data-driven management style to coaching teams and front offices, seeking to exploit game inefficiencies and rule loopholes to gain competitive advantage. The NBA’s adoption of the three-pointer is the most obvious consequence of this change in management, as is a commercial market that has replaced franchise continuity with staff turnover and incessant transactions. Harden, who combines an analytics-friendly style of play with a willingness to jump ship, is the perfect avatar for a new generation of NBA number crunchers and general managers.
Even the commissioner seems to embody this new philosophy. Former NBA chief David Stern ruled the league like a feudal baron, relishing his role as a heavy-handed disciplinarian while happily absorbing draft-day abuse from fans. His successor is a bespectacled University of Chicago-trained lawyer who utters platitudes about mental health awareness and China-US relations.
If this combination of mercenary capitalism and social liberalism sounds familiar, it’s because the NBA’s leadership increasingly reflects the sensitivities (and tensions within) of other flagship American institutions. Nike, a company that has long thrived on partnerships with macho NBA icons like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, is now lecturing the public about inclusion, tolerance and the urgency of watching women’s sports. Ethan Strauss, longtime NBA journalist, credits this tone-deaf approach to a disconnect between Nike’s creatives and its target audience:
There’s a lot of interaction between Nike and Wieden+Kennedy when the former asks the latter for some kind of announcement, but the direct line from both sides is many cooks in the kitchen. Based on conversations with people who have worked in both environments, there is a shortage of personnel deeply connected to the sport. Instead of being rooted in a subculture, you get ideas from people who went to nice universities and cool advertising schools, the kind of people who throw words like ‘patriarchy’ on the screen to celebrate a gold medal. Older leaders, uncomfortable in their position and therefore obsessed with forward-thinking, lean on younger types because young people are confident. Unfortunately, that trust is rooted in an ability to regurgitate liturgy, rather than generative genius.
These same tensions are found in other large American companies, from Disney, where a business executive with transgender and pansexual children oversees the development of family entertainment, New York Times, who faced a revolt at work for publishing an op-ed by a Republican senator.
But do people want to support an NBA team run like a hedge fund or a liberal newspaper? The evidence is mixed. The era of star mercenaries, three-point playoffs and tilted political activism has produced YouTube highlights, massive deals and skyrocketing franchise valuations. It was also a ratingsscrew up.
And ancient tribal loyalties prove surprisingly enduring. Social media was meant to usher in a new era of fandom that prioritized individual personality and skill over team loyalty. “Rooting for the laundry,” the media’s derisive term for cheering on the home team, was a relic of the past. Still, the New Money Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, owned by Tsai and former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, failed to supplant the Knicks and Lakers, their venerable Crosstown rivals. Laundry, it seems, has power.
Despite its history of star rivalries and oversized personalities, the NBA is also trying to soften its badass image. Silver’s latest move is to get NBA reporters out of the post-game locker room, cutting reporters off from their best source of gossip, grudges and outrageous quotes. Strauss, himself a veteran of NBA reporting, think it’s an attempt to protect the fans of the most retrograde and entertaining stories in the league.
To quote former NBA All-Star Charles Barkley, “The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist. And I miss it. Barkley, it’s no accident, has become a TV icon for his candid commentary and willingness to mix it up with current and former players.
A generation ago, Stern and his underlings feared their product would be too street, too confrontational and perhaps too black for a predominantly white audience. Now fans are nostalgic for ruthless rivalries like the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons vs. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the outrageously physical Knicks of the 1990s. The new HBO series winning time celebrates the behind-the-scenes antics of Magic Johnson’s Lakers and their budding feud with the Boston Celtics. NBA fans still yearn for macho confrontation, franchise loyalty, and ruling dynasties. The management of the league, however, seems increasingly reluctant to meet this request.
The NBA is not in danger of disappearing. The athleticism of the players is astonishing, the playoffs are compelling, and a new generation of stars, from Nikola Jokić in Denver to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee to Ja Morant in Memphis, are revitalizing the league’s brand outside of traditional powerhouses. big cities. Like many American companies, however, the NBA seems vaguely self-conscious about the product it sells (and, by extension, the sensitivities of its target audience). How owners and front offices handle this tension will determine the future of the sport.
Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.