Can The NBA Become Number One?
October signalled the start of the NBA season. Sports Gazette investigates if its surge in popularity means it can topple US sporting rival, the NFL.
In recent years the NFL appeared to be in its richest vein of form and witnessed a subsequent spike in viewing popularity. The league seemed flush with ‘elite’ quarterbacks, with more teams favouring exciting high-risk airborne playbooks.
The 2012 draft presented four future Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III as the first and second overall picks, and deeper in the draft came Russell Wilson and Nick Foles.
In addition to the new QB class of 2012, the league was already home to the likes of Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, as well as the evergreen quartet of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger.
Recent broadcast figures report that Monday Night Football has fallen 24% since this time last year, Sunday Night Football 19% and Thursday night is also down 18%. There is a host of theories for this sharp declines in popularity, but can the NBA take advantage? If so, how?
The NBA 2016-17 season is barely a few weeks old and yet already historic records have been equalled. New Orleans’ Anthony Davis became the first player to eclipse 90 points over the first two games of a season since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. It's early days, and Davis is fragile, but over two games he has 95 points, 33 rebounds, nine steals and eight assists, making him an early MVP contender despite being on a losing team.
Meanwhile, as anticipated in Oklahoma, Russell Westbrook is playing with a huge chip on his shoulder. In the aftermath of Kevin Durant’s departure, the point guard has taken his game to a new level and recently recorded the league’s first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabar in 1975.
While Golden State suffered a shock defeat in their opening game, last night Steph Curry became the youngest player in history to reach 1,600 career three-point shots. A two-time league MVP, Curry is likely to crack the top-10 three-point shooters by the end of the season, all at the tender age of 27.
The overall standard of teams within the NFL this year has dipped, and in stark contrast, the NBA appears to be in the ascendancy.
It is highly likely that the Finals will be a repeat of last year with Golden State the best of the West and Cleveland dominant in the East. However, almost every team boasts a star player worthy of the cost of admission alone. Even the perennially wretched Sacramento Kings have a player capable of winning games on his own in DeMarcus ‘Boogie’ Cousins.
The NBA’s best asset is its ability to build and improve its product both on and off the court each year. In Commissioner Adam Silver the league has a progressive thinker capable of growing the game, while being equally adept at tackling the league's unpredictable off-court controversies.
Less than three months after his 2014 appointment, Silver took strong action in banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following recorded racist outbursts. Sterling was also fined a maximum $2.5million and expelled from any future involvement with the NBA.
The new commissioner was also quick to support NBA official Billy Kennedy after he was subject to homophobic abuse from then-Sacramento Kings point guard Rajon Rondo.The NBA announced in 2014 that a record 101 international players from 37 countries featured during opening night ”
It could be argued that Silver merely followed a basic moral coding. However, when viewed in contrast to the litany of questionable actions taken by Roger Goodell, his NFL counterpart, it would seem the NBA has the most qualified leader.
The last few years have seen Goodell come under constant scrutiny for how he runs the NFL. His recent handling of Josh Brown’s domestic violence issues has finally signalled a potential end to his tumultuous reign.
The NBA has followed the NFL business model of playing regular-season games in London to grow the game. The basketball season is a marathon in comparison to the meagre 16 games played in the NFL. The greater volume of games allows more opportunities for future overseas games going forward.
Recent discussions with NFL UK suggest that teams most likely to travel to London would be restricted to those either those in geographic transition, e.g. the now-Los Angeles Rams, or teams who do not generate huge income from traditional home fixtures.
In effect, UK based NFL fans can expect more games on home soil in the future, but the quality of said games remains questionable. The NBA, however, will not be hamstrung by such issues and has the potential to capitalise in light of recent NFL viewing slumps.
Perhaps basketball's greatest advantage lies in its accessibility. American football, like ice hockey, is an expensive commitment, fraught with physical danger. In contrast, basketball requires a ball and a hoop and can be played in inner city regions where spacing and zoning are traditional hurdles.
A final indication that the NBA should eclipse the NFL is that of its global popularity. The NFL is very much an American game; conversely, basketball is played throughout the world, as reflected by its current representatives.
The NBA announced in 2014 that a record 101 international players from 37 countries featured during opening night rosters – the first time the league has eclipsed 100 international players.
The NFL's recent introduction of Thursday night football has not been very successful. The selected fixtures are often made up of less successful teams adding to the prevailing opinion that fans are over saturated.
Fantasy football's dramatic growth has made it a now multi-billion-dollar industry. A bi-product of the NFL, it is posing a considerable threat to the game's actual viewing figures.
Accommodating fantasy football is NFL Redzone, which allows viewers to simply follow all action currently taking place within 20 yards of an end zone at that precise moment. Understandably, traditional viewing figures have suffered a subsequent slump.
Highlights are also available digitally and via Twitter, meaning hours of cumulative commercials are now avoided as games are condensed to fifteen-minute digestible packages.
Will the NFL lose its crown? With viewing trends shifting, concussion awareness increasing, and a flagging captain at the wheel, maybe the NBA is finally primed to take advantage.