The NBA as a “niche” sport: Why?

Dan Shanoff and Tom Ziller had an excellent war of words around the NBA as a niche sport. The NFL is on it’s own level, MLB and College Football are in the 2nd group, college basketball (for March Madness alone) is next, and the NBA is right behind. I agree with Mr. Shanoff based on a lot of reasons, most of which I am a huge sports fan and I am not, nor do I know any hardcore sports fans. I grew up in Chicago during the Jordan era. I was 8 when they won their first title and 14 when they won their 6th. I remember the parades and riots and some basketball but I was too young to appreciate what I was witnessing. Fast forward 10 years. I am a VERY casual basketball fan. I watch the playoffs and an occasional game during the season but there isn’t a lot of love. So I started to wonder, why is it that pro basketball has fallen off the radar?

  1. Attention span – People in general don’t have the attention spans they did 20 years ago. There are so many cable channels, video games, the internet that people have so much else to do it’s hard to pay attention for 82 regular season games. (I can’t even sit in front of the TV without my laptop being I need to be doing multiple things at once). It’s the same reason MLB suffers the summer lull Mr. Shanoff referenced. Add to it that the NBA playoffs drag on for an eternity and by the end people can’t even remember the beginning.
  2. Meaningless regular season – The NBA’s playoff structure is a joke. 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs, that’s more than half (!). Consider that the previous two seasons there was one team in the playoffs with a losing record and at least one that was exactly .500. This year is shaping up the same. That means even if you lose more than you, you are still in the playoffs. The NFL (6 out of 32) and MLB (8 out of 30) make you at least sort of earn it. This makes it tough to get excited about regular season games, especially when a team like the Spurs doesn’t really start trying until after January 1st.
  3. Fantasy – Fantasy sports are out of control. I am not going to spend this time talking about everything I dislike about them, but they drive a lot of attention to the NFL and MLB. I am fairly convinced that fantasy baseball is one of the main factors for keeping people interested in the summer months. Fantasy football is so big that most people spend more time researching their fantasy team than their favorite team and I would guess that a lot of fans would root for their fantasy team over their own in a lot of circumstances. Fantasy basketball doesn’t seem to be near the same level.
  4. Gambling – I already mentioned March Madness and we are right in the thick of Office Pool Madness. It’s amazing to me how many people who couldn’t name 10 college basketball players before March 1st talk to me about their brackets. I don’t mind, it’s nice to see the interest in the college game. The fact remains, especially with the 1-year college rule, that office pools are about the only thing that keep college b-ball out of the “niche” classification. The NFL has even more gambling associated with it. Major websites (*ahem* Bill Simmons) give their weekly picks with the spread. It actually surprises me how many people openly talk about betting on the NFL.
  5. Bad Timing – The NBA has experienced bad timing in two ways. First, it’s season takes place in horrible months. When the season starts in October, it’s competing with the heart of the NFL and College Football season. By the time the Super Bowl ends, they have about a month before March Madness. They wisely put their All-Star game in this time frame and pick up some casual fans during this time (I am usually one of them). Then right as the NCAA Tournament ends baseball season starts. So right as people are getting amped about the start of baseball, and the NFL draft, the NBA playoff marathon starts. When during that span are they supposed to pick up casual fans? Baseball has June through August almost to themselves, plus it’s warm out, people want to be outside at games, etc. Then there was the issue of the lockout. The NBA lost Jordan and then missed a bunch of games. They lost a lot of fans then. Baseball struggled until the Home Run Chase of ’98 revived things. The NBA is STILL going through what hte NHL is going through. How do we get the fans back? Unfortunately David Stern is bad at figuring that out.

When you consider all of that, it’s not crazy to see how the NBA could have become a niche sport. It’s surprising when you consider the fact that about 20 years ago the biggest sports star on the planet was an NBA player. The sad part is that the NBA is too stuck to their “traditions” to make the radical changes they need to make to bring back fans. Radical changes helped MLB freshen things up, hopefully the NBA gets that wake-up call before it’s too late.

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