Professional sports products are sold by businesses. (So are major college sports, by the way, but I’ll leave that for another day). Sure, professional sports are filled with passion and romance and sporting glory, but at the end of the day, the job of a league’s commissioner is to return profits to its shareholders. Thus, leagues generally strive to create the best product they can in order to sell it to consumers, like you and me.
Right now, of all the major American sports, the NBA has the highest quality product.
In the days preceding Thursday’s 4 p.m. NBA trade deadline, I consumed anticipatory NBA content ravenously. I scrolled through NBA Twitter with its hot takes and fake trades and overreactions to cryptic player quotes. I tore through my favorite basketball podcasts’ dissections of the drama in Cleveland and looked for more.
And then Thursday arrived. As the league and its fans reacted to one dramatic domino after another—Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania being the ever-competing couriers—I sat in my first two-hour class of the day. Then another. I glanced at headlines as I walked between classes and during strategic bathroom breaks, but I ached to just fully immerse myself in the day’s developments. Then a third class, this one blissfully shorter. Finally I was free.
Leaving class, I passed a friend who had the same idea as I: find a chair somewhere, pull out our phones and gulp down NBA news.
What I eventually caught up on had been a historic day in the NBA. Storylines abounded (the Lakers creating cap space, Memphis hanging on to Tyreke Evans, etc.), but the headline was the Cavalier’s untested GM Koby Altman throwing a grenade at his aging, bickering, no-defense-playing roster. Isaiah Thomas tossed like scraps to the Lakers just one year removed from a 30-point-per-game season? Yeesh. Dwayne Wade’s non-existent knees headed back to Miami? Delicious. Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. as reinforcements for Lebron? Intriguing, but almost certainly insufficient against the Warriors.
You can find specifics of the day’s deals elsewhere. My point here is that the NBA held my attention throughout the day and thus, directly or indirectly, gave me my money without anyone even picking up a basketball.
What makes the NBA product so compelling? Surely the reasons are many, and difficult to quantify, but a few stand out.
For me, the biggest factor is that we care about the players. The NBA has stars that demand our attention. Case and point, Lebron James’ following on Twitter and Instagram is far more than any other athlete in American sports.
With athletes we care about come storylines we care about. On a Lebron team, every loss screams crisis, every quote becomes talk-show fodder. When his Cavaliers trade away nearly half their roster, we care.
The league has cultivated a product in which players can be themselves, which includes speaking out on political issues. Kyrie Irving’s (potentially sarcastic) flat-earth nonsense, Joel Embiid’s Twitter trolling and Russell Westbrook’s bold fashion choices all matter. The players themselves become characters in the league’s spectacle.
Secondly, the quality of play in the NBA is historically good. Fans get to watch Lebron, maybe the greatest player of all time. We also get to watch the Golden State Warriors, in the middle of one of the most dominating stretches for a franchise ever. We get to see the emergence of a brilliant generation of young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, combining ridiculous basketball skill with never-before-seen physical tools. The increasingly dominant style of basketball is great to watch—fast and offensive, filled with lengthy wings and versatile bigs.
The NBA has positioned itself to thrive in the internet age. Whereas the NFL has maintained firm control of its video content, the NBA has granted its fans far easier access to its video. I can scroll through Twitter and see all the dunks, crossovers, buzzer beaters, and shoving matches. Instagram accounts like House of Highlights are extremely popular and make the game more accessible, especially for younger generations.
My story is obviously anecdotal and my explanation incomplete, but I believe the NBA is in a great place. By utilizing its greatest commodity—the players—the league has become exceptionally compelling both on and off the court. The 2018 trade deadline is just the latest testament to this.
The product is good and the consumers are buying.