“If something isn’t interesting, whether it’s a show at 8 o’clock or an N.F.L. game or an N.B.A. game, the choices to cure boredom are greater than they’ve ever been,” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research.
But the N.B.A. is managing to keep fans tuned in. It is staging a highly anticipated finals with several of the most resonant players in the world; recently began a nine-year, $24 billion broadcast television deal; and experienced its highest attendance ever for the third consecutive year. Its franchise values have skyrocketed beyond the rate of growth in the N.F.L. or Major League Baseball, according to David M. Carter, who directs the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
The N.B.A. seems to have hit upon a solution to a problem that is vexing sports officials everywhere: how to get young people to pay attention. It has done this by becoming no longer merely a league of winning and losing, but a place for latching on to players and teams, often for reasons having nothing to do with their on-court play — like, tweets that develop a public-facing personality.
Drawing on not only the games themselves but social media, off-court news, advertising and even politics, the league combines the melodrama of soap operas, the intimate access (whether real or contrived) of reality television and the personalized whimsy of fan fiction.
Carter crystallized how the N.B.A. stood apart from the other major American leagues. “The N.F.L. markets the shield,” he said, referring to the N.F.L. logo, which is intended to project a buttoned-up toughness and excellence, “M.L.B. markets the franchises, and the N.B.A. markets the players.
“The N.B.A. has been far more personality centric than the other sports leagues,” he added. “They have been able to take advantage of the way millennials consume sports.”
Greenfield said the N.B.A. and its commissioner, Adam Silver, had been forward-thinking in catering to young fans. For example, the N.B.A. permitted game video on YouTube at a time when other leagues reflexively guarded their copyrighted content.
Basketball can more easily market itself this way because it has fewer players, and they don’t wear helmets or ball caps to obscure their faces.
“You have a smaller field of play,” said Courtney Cox, a former ESPN producer who is now writing about the W.N.B.A. for her doctoral dissertation at U.S.C. “We get so many react shots — we get the bench. Just watching the game, it’s sold to us in a different way.”
From working-class Larry Bird to flashy Magic Johnson to sublime Michael Jordan, basketball fans have had characters to root for in the past. But today, they confront idiosyncratic plotlines, like the insecure modesty of the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant; his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook’s radical self-reliance; and, of course, LeBron James’s journey back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in which he has been criticized for selfishness and selflessness while being praised and condemned for exploiting his position as the sport’s dominant player.
A brief history of how the N.B.A. got to this evolved fandom should begin at the turn of the century.
In the early 2000s, the league was unmoored. There was no single replacement for Jordan. The national team lost a game, and then failed to win gold in the 2004 Olympics. Point guard Allen Iverson polarized fans, with traditionalists made anxious by his score-first play and tattoos, while a younger cohort embraced his hip-hop style. (As is frequently the case in basketball, the question of race was barely subtext.) Iverson was a walking debate and a continually unfolding story.
Digital media technology enabled fans to self-publish, prompting a flourishing of sportswriting untethered to the traditional narratives favored by journalists who thought in column inches. The N.B.A. was comparatively a competitive vacuum, and they filled it with their own projected stories.
“Though fan considerations of sports and their narrative ramifications for personal identity long predated the web, the internet both amplified them and fostered their critical potential,” Noah Cohan, a lecturer in American cultural studies at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in his doctoral dissertation focused on evolving sports fandom.
Cohan cited Bill Simmons, now the chief executive of the sports and culture website The Ringer, as having honed a fan-perspective style that greatly influenced sportswriting. But for him, the defining site was FreeDarko.
Started in 2005 and named for the Detroit Pistons’ fledgling big man Darko Milicic, FreeDarko advocated “liberated fandom,” or allegiances based not on a fan’s geography or personal history but on moment-to-moment likings. It mapped colorful personalities onto players and teams, such that it could plausibly stage a “Dinosaur Draft” in which franchises selected dinosaurs that suited their personalities. (The Pistons picked the Tyrannosaurus rex: “It’s no surprise that a downtrodden franchise would go for a big-name player who can bring in fans,” the article said.)
“We had this funny habit of, I don’t want to say ascribing qualities that weren’t there, but reading tea leaves in a way where they were only faintly present,” said Nathaniel Friedman, a co-founder.
The site closed in 2011, but its diaspora can be found throughout digital sports media. Its ethos — seeing players as consistent characters unfolding in a serialized drama — is now dominant.
More traditional forms of entertainment have made crossover stars of N.B.A. players whose personas already exist. James’s small role as himself in the 2015 comedy “Trainwreck,” for instance, played on his specific tendencies (“Did you know Cleveland’s great for the whole family?” James earnestly asked Bill Hader’s character) in a way that even “Space Jam” failed to do with Jordan, the star of that 1996 movie.
When the producers of “Broad City,” the television comedy about two millennial women in New York City, learned that the Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin was a fan, they cast him in an episode. (They had him do some things for the show that are unprintable here.)
Jen Statsky, a “Broad City” writer and consulting producer (and, it should be disclosed, a Clippers fan), said she did not believe it was accidental that it was an N.B.A. player, rather than one from another major sports league, who ended up on the show.
“Their personalities shine through in a way that it doesn’t in other professional sports,” she said of N.B.A. players. “They engage with fans more. There’s a playfulness to the narrative of ‘Will LeBron troll the Warriors?’ There are story lines.”
It could almost be a sitcom.
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