The Sports world is ablaze right now with the debate over NBA commissioner David Stern’s pronouncement that he will be leveling “significant sections” against the San Antonio Spurs as a result of head coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to send his three biggest stars (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Giniobli) home to rest, missing a blockbuster match up with the Miami Heat. Stern’s argument is simple, “the fans deserve better.”
Those fans who are supportive of Stern’s threat are no doubt heartened to have an advocate. Already this morning, I have heard dozens of enraged sports fans proclaim, “if I had paid for those tickets, I would be furious.” No doubt, I would be too. However, sports fans are kidding themselves if they believe that David Stern has threatened sanctions against one of his most respected coaches and teams in league in defense of the 20,000 ticket payers in Miami. Commissioner Stern is acting in the interest of the fans — the fans commodities, not as consumers.
Like all modern day media audiences, sports fans operate in two significant roles: as a market of paying consumers that expect a quality product in return for their money and as a marketable demographic of potential consumers than can be sold to advertisers. The math, well its hardly math is it? ESPN/ABC/TNT pay the NBA a reported $930 million a year for the broadcast rights to its games (Holy smokes!). The networks, of course, pay such incredible sums because they turn a handy profit by selling advertising in conjunction with NBA products, TV air time, interactive media for live streams, etc. In short, fans are valuable not because the are a live market for the NBA’s product (realistically, ticket sales are just a drop in the bucket), but because they are a media commodity that the NBA parleys into broadcast contracts, merchandise sales, rights to video game production domestically AND overseas.
The NBA’s fans, however, have been a commodity whose value has been questionable as of late. During the 2007 negotiation for the extension of ESPN/ABC/TNT’s broadcast rights, Stern and network executives reportedly downplayed the league’s declining TV ratings, “insisting there is still plenty of demand for NBA-related content through other forms of media.” Still, the NBA’s ratings continue to be unimpressive (though showing modest growth), the NBA All-Star game has officially become a bigger joke than it is an entertainment spectacle, and the 2011 lockout proved to many fans that a fewer regular season games makes for a better NBA season. Perhaps most notable factoid in all of this is the fact that the modest growth in the NBA’s ratings since the low of the 2002-2003 season has been attributed to the allure of individuals stars and the youth of the NBA fans’ core demographic.
David Stern is outraged, I am positive, but not on behalf of those who bought tickets to last night’s game (which was consequently, well played, close in score, and featured the stars that Miami fans more than likely paid to see: Lebron, Wade and Bosh). He is outraged that one of his coaches is not adequately pandering to the networks and their advertising dollars.
The last time I checked, it’s a head coach’s job to win championships. When you have one of the oldest teams in the NBA and are nearing the end of a 10 day road stretch, having played 4 games in 5 nights, resting players isn’t just smart–it’s necessary. By insisting on maximizing the entertainment value of each game (and thus the marketability to advertisers), to the detriment of team strategy, player health, and coaching autonomy, David Stern has accomplished something I didn’t think likely. He’s dealt another blow to the already dwindling respect I hold for the NBA.
I have just one request for commissioner Stern. As NBA hurdles down the road to becoming a Harlem Globetrotters-esque, dinner and a movie sideshow, don’t blame it on the fans. I don’t think any of us are interested in that kind of NBA.