The Angelina Jolie of Sports Leagues

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Published: February 17, 2010

Many on the blogosphere these days commit what’s called the Fallacy of Self-Supposed Normalcy, wherein the writer makes an assumption that what he does or thinks is the social norm. Keeping this in mind, I think that in many ways the NBA is shooting itself in the foot via the very things for which people love it. I’ll explain:

Of the big-four North American pro sports leagues, the NBA is by far the most star driven. The “inevitable” Lakers-Cavaliers finals is not a story of the city of Cleveland seeking its first championship in eons, or about the Lakers solidifying their case as the dominant NBA franchise for all of time. No, it’s about LeBron vs. Kobe. The words on the fronts of their respective jerseys are immaterial.

The NBA is about players identify by their first names (or facsimiles of those names): Kobe, LeBron, Shaq, ‘Melo, D-Wade, AI, T-Mac, etc. It’s the only league where the personalities of the players are the single biggest marketing tool used by the league, and the thing to which almost all fans are drawn.

I was talking with a friend of mine, a big Hornets fan, a few months ago when the Chris Paul trade rumors were running rampant by irresponsible douches on the internet. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked, “If the Hornets traded Chris Paul and got back several lesser players, but these lesser players strengthened the team and the team went on to win the NBA Finals, would you approve of the trade?” My friend thought about it and said, emphatically, “No.”

“Really?” I asked, “Even if you could be guaranteed a championship? Even if you were guaranteed that, with Paul, the Hornets would never win it all?”

Again, “No.”

This makes little sense in terms of how we traditionally think about sports… but basketball is different. The NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball all market the game itself more than the star players; that’s because those games are more based in traditions—they harken back to an older, simpler time (I know we can’t relate to hockey down here, but in the northeast and certainly in Canada, hockey is thought of as we think of 1920’s baseball.).

In the other three leagues, fans mostly maintain loyalties to teams and not players. [I can only think of two stars in football that are like NBA stars in that fans follow the player and not the team: Brett Favre and, interestingly, Michael Vick.] But in the NBA, the likes of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady jump from team to team and somehow maintain a cult following. And the sports media has gotten unlimited mileage out of promoting James and Wade moving to new teams; it’s almost as if they derisively dismiss the idea of either of these guys sticking with his team the remainder of his career.

I can think of several explanations for why this phenomenon is unique to basketball. The one that makes the most sense is that there are so few players on each team, and each player is so accessible (Because they are right there, mere feet from the fans, free of facemasks or hats.), that we feel we intimately know each player (Insofar as we can “know” a professional athlete.). What’s more, we follow the few players on each team as they jump around the league, many spending time with five, six, seven, or eight franchises throughout their careers.

So while the sport is dominated by stars, it has the missing element the other sports have where we feel the star truly “represents” the fans of his team. I realize this is largely an illusion – as much as I love Drew Brees, I acknowledge he has nothing to do with me even though he lives in and plays for a team I follow – but that illusion is what has endeared these sports to their fans. But it’s an ethos that mostly doesn’t exist with basketball; even Michael Jordan doesn’t walk around these days embodying Chicago in a way that, say, John Elway today embodies Denver.

 So maybe I’m old-fashioned. But I’m becoming more and more turned off by the star culture of the NBA. Winning and losing seem to have little impact on how popular certain stars are (Vince Carter?), or how much coverage that player receives (Dwyane Wade’s Heat have had a painfully mediocre season and yet he still receives prime billing every night on SportsCenter.). Coverage of the league is moving in a dangerous TMZ-like direction, wherein stars receive coverage that’s largely unrelated to their production (I liken it to Angelina Jolie, who has been the biggest female movie star of the past five years, but who hardly ever actually stars in a hit movie.)  And the game of basketball has become marginalized, and I believe there are many people who are like me and think the current system is hard to identify with. After all, I tune into an NBA studio show and hear not about X’s and O’s, but about how bad Charlie Villanueva’s contract is. But this is, I suppose, what generates traffic.

Or maybe not. After all, it was just reported the league has lost $400 million. So maybe I’m not alone.

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