Why it Looks Better from the Couch

Bell_Centre_Basketball_Game

The average price of a beer at an NBA game is $7, that’s right SEVEN DOLLARS! In arguably the least shocking news since Charlie Sheen’s latest run-in with the law, NBA attendance is down. The cost of live basketball drunkenness is prohibitive, but the price of admission is often dirt-cheap… and people still don’t show up. It seems that in 2013 television has finally begun killing live sports.

Unlike the NFL, the NBA was never petrified that televising games would hamper fan attendance. This may be due to the limitations of pre-1990 television. Watching an old-timey football game on ESPN Classic is often epic; watching a classic basketball game (even a relatively modern classic featuring the awesomeness that is Magic Johnson) is downright painful. The 1980’s may have been a golden age of basketball, but it was not a golden age of basketball television. Wide-angle lens basketball is not an entertaining viewing experience. Constant action shot basketball, with behind the backboard cameras, player close-ups, filmed Doc Rivers’ timeouts, and instant replays from seven different vantage points, however, is basically a basketball fan-gasm.

It is disingenuous to solely blame improved television technology on the NBA’s attendance downturn. The NHL, MLB, and NFL have all seen their respective broadcasts improve; yet none of these leagues have seen their gate nosedive like the NBA’s. The MLB boasted its fifth best attendance ever last year. Hockey attendance is up 2%. The NFL has seen a slight downturn in attendance, but overall the league’s ticket sales remain strong.

What makes the NBA’s poor attendance even bleaker is that, unlike in the NFL, it is endemic. If you took away the NFL’s worst performing franchises, the league would have no attendance problem. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a pro team in a college sports town that are run terribly. The fan apathy is so palpable that I know a girl who lives down there and is a Redskins fan, yet attends Jaguars’ functions because it takes all of 10 minutes to bypass security and get up close and personal with players. The team motto should be, “We are so thankful that someone, anyone, showed up we’ll let you meet Maurice Jones-Drew.”

The NBA’s attendance problem affects nearly all of its franchises. The Indiana Pacers are a lock to make the playoffs, they seriously challenged the Miami Heat in last year’s postseason, and they play in Indiana (arguably America’s most basketball crazed state), yet they struggle to sell tickets. This is not some dysfunctional, misplaced franchise (a la the Jaguars), but a strong team with a seemingly obvious market.

The problem is that basketball is consumed differently than America’s other three major sports. It is not earth shattering to say that the NBA markets itself differently than the NFL, MLB, and NHL.

Football sells its teams. Redskins fans “bleed burgundy and gold,” the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s team” (I hate this moniker, but one cannot argue its effectiveness as a marketing ploy), and the Green Bay Packers somehow represent everything that is right with the Midwest. The sport is marketed in a way that makes you want to be near the team. That obnoxious drunk guy with his face painted at an NFL game is a beautiful symbol of fanatical fan support. That same drunk guy at an NBA game is an obnoxious shmuck that you wished would choke on his $10 nachos.

The MLB sells the “baseball experience.” The seventh inning stretch is just as important to baseball as the actual sport, if not more so. The MLB markets Americana, thus creating something beautiful in seeing a game live. You can hate watching baseball, but it is hard to hate sipping a beer on a hot summer day and connecting to an America of yesteryear.

I’m not really sure what hockey markets, but hockey fans are freaking crazy. I don’t think it has to (or does) market anything besides the actual sport. Seriously, I am not the world’s biggest hockey guy, but in terms of fan fanaticism these guys might take the cake. Considering Vancouverites burned down their city because their team LOST a championship game, (your move Lakers fans) it doesn’t surprise me that hockey nuts want to see games live.

The NBA markets its stars. The crux of contemporary basketball is seeing the best players do absolutely crazy things. I have never switched off a Redskins game (I’m a long suffering Washington sports fan) to watch the high flying Patriots offense, but I have switched from watching the epic futility that is a Wizards-Bobcats game to watch Kobe Bryant toy with defenses in his quest to become better than Michael Jordan (he might also toy with defenses because he is a competitive psychopath, sometimes it seems like he waits for a defender to get better defensive positioning before draining a three just because he can).

This “see the stars” NBA marketing is how basketball cursed its ticket sales. Team loyalty is slowly being replaced with player loyalty. Basketball is the only sport that I know where lots of fans have favorite players from opposing teams. I know tons of Kevin Durant fans who aren’t Thunder fans, but I don’t know any Aaron Rodgers fans who aren’t also Packers fans.

The stadium experience is expensive, inconvenient, and often obnoxious. Its sole advantage is letting you see what you love live. In basketball, if you love Kobe, LeBron, Durant, and Griffin why would you go see the local team? It seems logical that more fans are deciding to take the $6 six pack and their favorite players (on TNT with Charles Barkley no less) over the $7 dollar beer and random live matchups.

Max Manasevit

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