Lengthy Email Discussion on the NBA

Posted: 3rd December 2011 by Blake Murphy in Blake Murphy, NBA Ball, Trev Smith
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So Trev and I got talking when the NBA announced that an agreement had been reached on a tentative deal. It started to get detailed, so we formalized it a bit and decided to turn it into a piece for the site. 7500 words later, we thought it was time to split it into two pieces and post it. Check it out below, and click here to jump to Part 2.

Blake: So, the NBA’s nuclear winter ended up being more bar fight than Cold War. We can get into the finer points of the deal and the 2011-12 (2012?) season repercussions shortly, but the thing that has been on my mind foremost has been the reaction to the end of the lockout. It seems the die-hards have completely forgiven the NBA immediately, and just recalibrated their internal basketball calendars to begin on Christmas Day, while there seems to be no reaction whatsoever from the casual fan base.

My question to you is this - is this a reaction the NBA should be concerned about, or is this how the NBA always operates? That is, are we among a group of die-hard loyalists and merely flanked by observers once their attention has turned from the NFL and college football? Or has this short but highly-publicized (read: annoying) lockout driven away some of the more casual fans, similar to the NHL’s lockout from 2004-05?

Trev: Before attempting to address your questions, it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that you and I represent two of the most ‘die-hard loyalists’ going. So while I would like to think of myself as a discerning individual with enough perspective to approach this from the viewpoint of the casual fan, my perception of reality may colour my observations throughout this dialogue…

HAVING SAID THAT, I would think that the NBA should be concerned, but not traumatized by the non-reaction of the culture overall. For the most part, Joe Public in North America cares about basketball for three periods a year: Christmas Day, when they are desperate for an excuse to not have to talk to their extended family; March, when the Madness consumes us all; and finally in late-May through June, when the quest for the Larry O’Brien nears its conclusion.

All three of those peak interest points remain intact. In fact, I think you could easily argue that the Christmas matchups will now hold the most appeal to the casual consumer since the first Shaq-Kobe matchup in 2004. “The Decision” spurred awareness and interest from the general public in rallying against all things Miami. While our A.D.D. culture may have moved on to the next scandal and the next set of villains, it would be only reasonable to expect that casual fans will tune in expressly to see Team N.W.O., er, the Heat, get embarrassed by having to watch Dallas’ ring ceremony. That, plus a relevant team in New York and the omnipresent Lakers’ Christmas game will drive traffic to ABC in droves.

As far as I can tell, the missed games and public posturing enraged us, the die-hard consumer, but the casual observer was too busy with the NFL, college football, the NHL’s continued rise, and everything else to become truly venomous about this situation. And I do not think that ‘non-reaction’ is as damning to the NBA as it is just a sign that football trumps everything, always (and maybe forever). As long as the NBA was working by the time Rodgers and the Pack won their second Super Bowl, they were going to be fine.

When the NHL went dark for a season, they were not in the same position in terms of talent that the NBA finds itself in. Yes, they had game changers on-deck in the draft. But while everyone north of the 49th knew that Sidney was the Next One and that Ovie was the Russian-who-plays-the-most-like-he’s-Canadian-ever, the casual fan didn’t know them yet. They weren’t brands you could build on at that point. The last Stanley Cup winner came from Tampa of all places. The Great One was now several years removed from the game. They were not well positioned to make people forget the labour dispute based on excellence on the ice.

Similarly, the last NBA work stoppage in 1999 came at the worst possible moment for the league: God had just retired after winning his sixth ring. To the average fan, Jordan was basketball, plain and simple. Proof of that is that the maddening “Search for the Next Jordan” dominated the conversation around basketball for years, even with Shaq and Kobe setting up a dynasty. Think about that – MJ’s hold on the hearts and minds of typical fans was such that many were disinterested in the league at a time when history was being made.

Today, the NBA is blessed with the best crop of young stars it has ever had, both in terms of talent, playing style, and general likeability. The league has always been about building superstars and making players into brands, and this group has embraced the power of that operating model. Blake, Durant, Rose, Dwight, Amare, CP3…the list of exciting young players entering their prime is as deep as it has ever been in league history. Unlike the late ‘90s, when the Riley Knicks turned the NBA into a street fight, the way the game is played today is always aesthetically beautiful .

(And that is to say nothing of the Super Friends. LeBron’s brand is arguably the biggest the league has seen since MJ – yes, bigger than Shaq, bigger than Kobe. Everyone has an opinion or three about his every move. And he may not be the best player on his own team. That brings a kind of awareness and interest you can’t buy.)

I have already written way more than necessary – can you tell I’m excited for the league to come back? – so I will turn the reigns over to you. What is your reaction to our collective immediate forgiveness? Who do you think had their legacy most affected by this mess? Why did the owners’ give back on so many issues that were non-starters just last week? And was Stern’s rhetoric overblown, or real? For my part I’ll admit that based on his tone I was fairly sure that there were only two ways this could play out:

1. The league’s preferred scenario, whereby Fisher and Hunter would become the father and son team from “The Road,” journeying together across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape, focused only on survival.

2. The infinitely more fun scenario, where Piece would turn into Denzel in “Book of Eli” – the ultimate badass nomad roaming around a bombed-out-and-depleted shanty town in search of hope.

Blake: That’s quite a response….mine will be more brief, I hope, but we’ll see where the keyboard takes me. It goes without saying, of course, but I agree on your points, especially the importance of Christmas Day for the NBA somehow being elevated from prior years. I would sincerely hope the NBA goes #BeastMode on the schedule though and rolls with five back-to-back games like they did last year, getting 10 of their most visible and popular franchises out there ASAP. I’d propose keeping NYK/Bos, Mia/Dal, and LAL/Chi (apparently D-Rose has been getting in touch with his inner Kobe, to paraphrase a reporter I can’t remember at the moment), while also throwing in OKC/LAC and Orl/Anyone left over.

As for your questions, allow me to focus on the figureheads first and say that I don’t care much how their legacies play out. This will gain importance in 2015 when the two of us are collaborating on a History of the NBA super-volume, but the potential long-term image implications for Stern and Hunter are meaningless to me now that the deal is done. It was merely an interesting sub-plot to the negotiations. I am curious, however, of two things as they relate here:

1) How long will Stern last as Commish? The “new” wave of owners clearly doesn’t have the respect for him the older guard has, having not reaped the rewards from him growing the brand so successfully. Peter Holt can only hold the new contingent at bay so long, and I wonder if some of his public posturing and over-the-top rhetoric wasn’t a ploy to seem like he was more in control than he actually was (although I’m sure the owners could see first hand exactly how much he brought to the table compared to, say, an Adam Silver).

2) Ditto for Billy Hunter? He was pulled through the wringer throughout the lockout coverage, and deservedly so (as a fan, that he “saw this coming two years ago” is the most inexcusable quote from the entire debacle). That said, this is the third time he has negotiated a new CBA, and with the two previous ones he was likewise criticized for getting the players a bad deal…only to see it viewed as a pro-players outcome later on. Will the Union give it time to settle in before rendering a verdict on Hunter?

My final concern would be that I heard nothing of negotiations regarding new media and expanding markets. This scares me because the NBA is on top of this stuff way more than any other sport, and it could potentially be the key driver of revenue moving forward. It seems too simplistic and short-sighted to have simply grouped these issues in under “basketball related income.”

Might have strayed off topic a bit, so allow me to pump the brakes there and send it back your way.

Trev: I appreciate your desire to turn your attention back to the play on the court and away from that in the courtroom (#Zing) but I do think that it’s worth at least acknowledging the impact this colossal failure in leadership will have on the legacies of the key parties. Given that Stern is more responsible for building the modern NBA as we know it than anyone not name Michael Jordan, the disintegration of his reputation is relevant if only because of its potential impact on the future of the league’s leadership. You alluded to Mr. Silver in a dismissive light, but keep in mind that were Stern to walk away tomorrow it is Silver who would take the reins. The fact that the coalition of “New Age” owners does not revere or fear David in the same way their predecessors did, combined with the self-entitled viewpoint of today’s stars exhausting any respect they once had for the Commissioner (see: Dwyane “Don’t point your finger at me” Wade) suggests a very real, very uncertain shift in power at the top of the organization. I am one who thinks that may ultimately be for the best personally, as a change in leadership vision and style may help mend some of the lingering wounds from this standoff. It is easy to see the narrative that says Stern was a great leader who did not know when to walk away and as a result tarnished his legacy – the old Harvey Dent argument (“Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”). That is debatable of course. What isn’t debatable though is that you and I have never known an NBA without David Stern, and projecting the impact his absence would have is no easy task.
As for Mr. Hunter – (audible sigh) – well, I cannot possibly imagine him coming back in his current role once this nonsense is all sorted out. You are right in saying that his constant refrain of “We saw this coming for two years” is at first glance an insult to the fans…but let’s really analyze it for a moment. From the time you spent exploring a career in the legal profession, you should recognize that with every press release or media engagement, he and Fisher were positioning themselves to be able to argue that the league never intended to bargain in ‘good faith’. Legally, this would be impossible to do if they decertified immediately on July 1 – how could they have asserted the position that the owners were not bargaining in good faith if they immediately broke up the union. It is precisely the problem the NFLPA had this summer when they disbanded too soon. If you view it as a simple ploy for leverage, its effectiveness is diluted since the owners’ lawyers would know the players would not be able to prove they made any attempt to negotiate.

Now, there is a massive range between bargaining in good faith and what actually went down. Seemingly, for the first two months of negotiation the players were giving in everywhere. If you will pardon the crudeness, with some of the concessions they made, the players were one step away from merely ‘wiping their chin and saying thank you.’ That is where you fault Hunter and his team; the inability to create even the illusion of leverage or influence until a week and a half ago. His ineffectiveness in controlling the negotiations, even merely from a PR perspective, is his most glaring failure. Yes, the owners would seem to have had all the power and negotiating leverage, but that is what Billy was getting paid for…to improve that, or at least make the public believe he could. Even if the players had to negotiate enough to prove that the owners were being unreasonable and bullying them, that didn’t require waiting until November to pull the trigger on decertifying in order to create leverage. That same move would have been justified in a legal sense on August 1, September 1…etc. To wait until they did and thus jeopardize the season in a very real way was reckless at best, and idiotic at worst. Just like Stern, this is his failure, and the responsibility that comes with accepting this kind of leadership position demands that he be accountable for the seemingly total lack of direction or strategy in the PA’s approach over the last 5 months.

Now, pardoning my divergence into discussing “David and Billy: An Unlikely Bromance,” allow me to finally address some of your other points.

In respect to the Christmas matchups, I have to disagree with you slightly. I don’t know that going HAM and hitting everyone over the head with games is the right way to approach things. My initial reaction is that that would be overwhelming, and each individual match-up would get less attention. Rather than throwing out 5 or 6 games of varying quality and level of media interest or speculation, in my eyes the league would be better served to set up only a few matchups that are absolute ‘Can’t Miss’ ratings pulls, and knock those out of the park (I am crossing sports metaphors all over the place here, sorry. Something something get-it-across-the-goal-line, something something). You and I love the OKC boys, as does any blue-blooded NBA diehard. But they do not resonate nationally yet, at least not in the same way Miami or even the Knicks do. Is that right? No, clearly. As Wilbon wrote in his initial reaction column to the proposed settlement, the Knicks are probably the most overrated and overvalued franchise in North American sports based on merit of championships and excellence alone. But even though that’s true, it doesn’t matter in the ratings game. The fact that the common fan should care more about Durant and Westbrook than a bunch of chuckers that don’t play defense is obvious, but they don’t. It’s my view that putting the ‘sexiest’ matchups out there (I feel like a jerkoff even writing that) on opening day is critical. Look at the NFL model. They leverage the Thursday night showcase game on Kickoff Weekend to showcase the very best of the league. Sure, they could probably do a double-header that night, but sometimes less really is more. As in, more hype, more focus, and more good will.

A quick thought on the new media and vertical brand extensions you referenced: I think the NBA is light-years ahead of other leagues in this regard already, and really any media concerns should be part of another conversation outside of BRI, etc. The players’ right to leveraging their own image in other media avenue is unhinged upon currently, and an easy case could be made that the NBA has 10 of the 25 most famous athletes globally, second only to Association Football (or Soccer, if you’d prefer). The players (and their agents) are smart enough to continue to leverage this fact into deals that use new media and new geographies to expand their piece of the overall marketplace. The other key point here is that the NBA has already moved to a distribution channel online that is vastly superior to other leagues, and that completely aligns with how younger demographics today want to pay for and consume their entertainment: highly customizable and viewer-controlled. NBA Broadband represents a value proposition for fans globally that no other league can, and its excellence as a service offering will only be made more clear in the decade ahead as more early adopters move away from the traditional telco cable package model for consumption. The NFL lives off of its TV deal – it is without question the life-blood to the league’s revenue. But it is based on major networks paying through the roof for distribution rights to their product. Over-the-top services like NBA Broadband do not need a national distribution channel like network television to thrive, and as more and more consumers continue to buck against major cable companies and seek out over-the-top services, the NBA’s offering will be better positioned precisely because it aggregates smaller regional stations.

(This is a rabbit hole we can go down in person someday, as it’s a subject I can discuss for hours at a time, but essentially the only reason I still have TV – as good as FIBE is – is because of the need to watch sports in high-definition and in real-time. All of my other entertainment options are available to me without the need for a cable company or telco’s service. Sports remains the one area that isn’t yet true.)

I want to throw this back to you before I dominate this dialogue more than I already have.

Click here to continue to Part 2.

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