When the Ravens step on the field to battle the San Francisco 49ers in a couple of weeks, I’m honestly debating not watching. It’s not that I don’t care about the game. It’s also not about boycotting it for some kind of a fake reason. I’m not sure exactly why it became my reaction to start looking for movies to watch so that I could somehow avoid the game entirely, but that’s where my head instantly went. In the end despite those initial reactions, it appears that I will be watching the game. I will also be defying my own rules that I discussed with TD on the podcast recently and go to a party to “watch” the game with other people. It just goes to show even when the Browns are firmly entrenched in their off-season process that the NFL has achieved something by making me care enough that I would consider not even watching the nation’s signature annual sporting event – the Super Bowl – because I might feel hurt if one of the teams that’s not mine could win.
Interestingly, not watching big games is nothing new for me. When LeBron James and the Miami Heat were facing elimination against the Dallas Mavericks, I was in a rock club in Akron Ohio watching David Bazan. I took some pleasure in seeing on my phone when the Heat lost and the Mavericks and Mark Cuban were able to raise that trophy. Since that time, I haven’t been able to take nearly as much an emotional stake in the NBA and I’ve been very critical of the NBA and its business structure as a result. Andrew and I discussed it in depth recently, and the more I think about it, the more I think that in a strange way because I’m actually still annoyed or angry about it that at least it means I still care.
Is there an expiration date to caring as dissatisfaction starts to pile up?
The Cavaliers are still in a post-LeBron grace period. Kyrie Irving at least projects to give fans a light at the end of the tunnel. The Indians on the other hand have been flirting with irrelevance more and more over the last five years, but even they’ve tried to break the cycle with their off-season getting Terry Francona and Nick Swisher among others. I’ve read more than a few tweets over the last few years about Browns fans taking their Sundays back from the woeful team in the fall when the weather is nice. Some DVR the games, but some don’t even bother doing that.
David Stern obviously has concerns about it. Even as he never seemed particularly bothered by LeBron James’ departure and the movement of other players around the league, he certainly dropped the hammer on the Spurs for calling the meaningfulness of a TNT game against the Heat into question by shipping three players home early. The funniest part of that whole thing to me was listening to fans – not even Spurs fans, but NBA fans in general – defending Greg Popovich and the Spurs and going completely against their own self-interest as viewers of TNT.
But even then, it’s not that easy. Chuck Klosterman wrote masterfully about the entire thing at Grantland that still leaves me without a conclusion, but made me think really hard about the whole thing.
Popovich is a beloved, admired coach who appears actively unconcerned with the entertainment requirements of basketball (which is how most serious fans would insist they want him to behave). He’s exclusively concerned with real competition over the long term, particularly in the month of June; everything else is a distraction. Stern’s essential rebuttal is that pro basketball only exists because pro basketball is fun to watch (and if you ignore its entertainment import, the rest of this will all disappear). He’s concerned with short-term competition on a night-to-night basis, which translates into an entertaining product overall.
And surprisingly enough, I think the NBA is pretty good about caring about keeping things competitive. Even as they struggle with setting up a system that encourages parity and try to temper the ambitions of players to skirt those systems for their own self-interest, I’m left looking squarely at baseball on the heels of Klosterman’s words about the NBA. Where David Stern fights the Spurs for rendering a TNT game useless and operates a game with a meaningful draft and a salary cap.
Meanwhile Bud Selig operates a game where the Los Angeles Angels can sign a 20-year TV deal worth $3 billion with little regard to the fact that the Angels can’t earn that money without a lot of teams like the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s in the opposite dugout. Yet, all Selig can do is hide behind the anomalies like that team not making the playoffs in the first year of their free agent deal with Albert Pujols.
Caring transferred to my generation, but what about the next one?
All of this rambling in and out of the various sports is really shorthand for saying that it all still means a whole lot to me, but I am continually concerned that it will mean less and less going forward. Baseball has its own problems that have been overcome to this point mostly by tradition, culture and habit. When Mark Shapiro said what he said about not coming if your only priority is on winning and losing, it seemed ugly, but it was the truth. Going to baseball games is a lot like going to a public park and taking advantage of a good weather day. With 162 games a season and 81 opportunities at home, it’s never going to be dire until the playoffs or on a stretch run. So in a lot of ways they’re insulated culturally I think, at least for a while. But the other two sports – NBA and NFL – I’m concerned about. (Apologies to hockey fans, of course, but it’s not on my radar.)
As the NBA continues to cater to national fans of its sport with TNT games and super-teams, I think they could eventually lose their appeal. Even as much as some people seem to love those national games and the playoffs as non-affiliated fans, without living and dying with a team as I have done in the past with the Cavs, I think the switching cost to other forms of entertainment is just far too low. If you’re really interested in the NBA as an exhibition as opposed to being closely associated with a team, you’re probably the kind of fan that is susceptible to being poached by something else, whether it’s the continued rise of MMA or even some kind of competitive reality show that has yet to be created on some yet-to-be-created, testosterone-fueled YouTube channel, for example. That camaraderie with a localized fan-base is a powerful thing, and I think the NBA could be threatened in the real long-run if their audience continues to become more nationalized and less localized.
I use Best Buy as an example a lot because I’ve studied their business and issues a lot in the news. I’ll go ahead and use them again because I find the parallels somewhat productive. You had a local electronics store that used to sell TVs and hi fi equipment. They also fixed stuff, you know, when people used to fix electronics. Then Best Buy proliferated, offered you a trillion things, put the smaller places out of business, and thrived for a period just as the NBA can thrive off general NBA fans for a while. Eventually though people have no relationship with anyone who wears a blue shirt and Best Buy becomes dispensable as people shop for a better deal on Amazon. The switching cost away from Best Buy was super low and I think those purely national, TNT NBA watchers are only as loyal as their pure entertainment goes.
There’s a reason the Cavs haven’t been on national TV in years. They don’t cater to those fans because they haven’t been good enough at the expense of a superteam in Miami. In the short run that’s OK for David Stern and company and they think they might even believe they can expand their overall market by getting new fans with bigger matchups on a bigger stage. My fear is that it could come at the cost of local fans in cities where the buy-in is a necessary part of the business model.
The NFL, on the other hand, is still pretty ingrained as a cultural fixture in pretty much every market they operate in. But make no mistake. They’re flirting with nationalized audiences too, only in different ways from the NBA. Between the Red Zone channel and fantasy football, they’ve embraced a marginal kind of fan that was never interested in the game before and they’ve rode it to huge financial success and growth. I question the long-term viability of the NFL for people who are obsessed with the numbers pushed out by NFL games into box scores and subsequent fantasy football leagues. How much are those people buying into football and the NFL vs. the way Browns fans have bought into their local team in the past? Is it sustainable and is there enough of a switching cost that they can’t replace that loose sense of competition that fantasy football gives them in some other way? I’m not so sure. It concerns me as a sports fan. It concerns me as a father of two sons.
Projecting to 2023
I know this got long and I apologize for that, but on the eve of the Super Bowl I got a bit reflective about just how much sports can continue to mean in such a fast-paced world with lots and lots of entertainment options. The United States is an entertainment-driven culture. We listen to Spotify, watch Netflix and largely are moving further and further into an on-demand world. As we’ve done that the profit margins have shrunk in those industries, a lot of middlemen have been oustered and even more stakeholders have been left trying to find their place in the new world. There will be a change to the face of sports and sports do continue to change and adjust with the times, but if I were a betting man, I would bet that at least one sport of the major three in my lifetime will face a crisis that will threaten to end them if not do the job.
Right now, if I had to bet, it would be the NFL too, which is my favorite. Between internal pressure from the concussion situation and the fact that they’ve yet to find a way to internationalize the sport, it’s a risk. It isn’t probably even in the next decade, but looking past that, you just never know. My sons will be about 12 and 10 in 2023 and I just don’t know if they’ll be able to be fans the way I have been in my lifetime.
2023. Think about that for a second.