Sometimes companies get so big it’s unimaginable that they can fall. Sears and Roebuck used to be the standard for department stores. Now, they’re facing bankruptcy and closing stores at an alarming rate. You might remember the stores Circuit City and Radio Shack. They were the standard for electronics and Circuit City is gone while Radio Shack is on the verge of extinction. World Championship Wrestling was the wrestling company from 1996-1998 and by 2001, they were being purchased by the World Wrestling Federation. Recently, the National Football League was seemingly invincible, but with the controversies surrounding player safety, concussions, and the NFL’s blatant disregard for these issues and overexposure, the NFL has seen a decline in television ratings. Suddenly, they don’t feel invincible anymore and you could see the possibility that the NFL could end one day.
The NBA signed a 9 year/$24 billion dollar TV contract in 2014 that went into effect this season. Ratings for the league are exploding, salaries are at an all-time high, and the league recently enjoyed an all-time high in average attendance in 2014-2015. Things couldn’t be better for the National Basketball Association. Is this sustainable or could the unthinkable happen and the NBA follow the pitfalls that ruined the companies mentioned previously?
In the early 2000s, player salaries exploded and fans began to shift away from the product. Fans felt the players were entitled brats jumping to the NBA from high school without the skill or work ethic required to backup these bloated salaries. The NBA is facing similar issues today. Mike Conley, a nice All-Star point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies and a talented player, just landed a 5 year/$153 million dollar contract netting him an average salary of $30 million per season. It is the biggest contract in NBA history to date. Conley’s teammate, Chandler Parsons, signed a 4 year/$94.8 million dollar contract this same offseason, even though he has a lengthy history of knee injuries and was coming off hybrid microfracture knee surgery in 2015 and arthroscopic surgery this past offseason to address a torn meniscus. Parsons is averaging 6.5 points per game this season on 35% shooting and a putrid 27% from 3 in only 27 games.
Let’s not single out the Grizzlies. Other notable contracts during this salary cap boom were Evan Turner, 4 years/$70 million, Timofey Mozgov, 4 years/$64 million, Allen Crabbe, 4 years/$75 million, Tyler Johnson, 4 years/$50 million, and Joakim Noah, 4 years/$72 million. That is insane money being thrown around for guys the casual fan hasn’t even heard of. If casual fans revolted during the early 2000s salary boom, what are they thinking now?
The league is also pricing itself outside of the working class fan. When I first purchased NBA League Pass in 2012, you had three main packages: You could buy the mobile package with your selection of five teams for $100, you could purchase access to every NBA team for $200, or you could go through your cable/satellite provider for $200 for all of the teams. The choice package has been gone for around three years and now you still have three options: You can buy access to your favorite team for $150, the entire league for $200, or buy individual games for $6.99 each. It’s outrageous. I’m a father of five and work in “real life” at a non-profit agency. Do you think I want to drop $150 a year to watch around 50 Chicago Bulls games (especially when the Bulls are hard to watch right now)? Do you think my wife would be okay with it? Watching 82 games is difficult anyways with the demands of life, family, and other obligations. It’s unreasonable at that price. Oh, and by the way, League Pass is horribly inconsistent and hardly works. I tried to watch live games on my PC, Xbox 360, PS4, and Amazon Fire Stick and it also got caught up buffering, froze up, or said there was a technical glitch. I’m going to pay $150-$200 for a product that doesn’t work? No thank you.
Also, the cost of attending games has become ridiculous. I live near Lexington, Kentucky and the nearest NBA franchise would be the Indiana Pacers (three hours away). Let’s say I want to go see the San Antonio Spurs in Indiana because I’m a huge Kawhi Leonard fan (I am). Currently, the cheapest game tickets I’ve found are $13 at the very top of the arena, which isn’t bad, but I’m taking my eight year-old because he loves Kawhi too (he doesn’t) and I want to get lower arena seats. I found two tickets in section 122, row 31 for $125 a piece ($250+fees for me and my son to go). Not horrible, but again I’m a father of five working at a nonprofit. So, we pay around $300 total for decent seats, drive to Indiana on a tank of gas ($30-$40 probably in my SUV), and decide to stay the night because it’s going to be late when we get out. I found a 3.5 star Holiday Inn in Indianapolis for $123 a night. We’re also going to eat out, but we’ll probably do mostly fast food ($15 each for three meals, one sitdown restaurant for $30). We also are going to get food and drinks at the game and maybe a souvenir so maybe another $50 there? That totals up to around $588 for this trip. That is not cheap.
Here’s the other issue: We get to the arena after spending our $300 on tickets, driving three hours, booking our hotel, and what do we find out? Popovich decides to rest Kawhi Leonard against the Pacers. He decided it 2 hours before tip-off. Now, here we are about to drop $600 and 2 hours before this game is about to start, the player we drove and spent money to see, isn’t playing. This is a very real scenario being played out in arenas across the country. The Golden State Warriors are the most popular team in the league right now. Earlier this season, tickets in the cheap seats that were priced at $13 for the Spurs were more like $100+ for the Warriors. Imagine dishing out thousands of dollars to take your kids to see Steph Curry or Kevin Durant play only to show up at the arena and find out they aren’t playing. The Warriors only come to an Eastern Conference arena once a season and these very things are happening. The NBA has a rest epidemic and guys are getting pulled at the last moment. The NBA has to fix this. My suggestions: Limit the number of rest games per year to 3 (basically paid time off), must have at least 24 hours notice before resting a player, and the player cannot rest on the road or for national TV games. Obviously, some coaches will exaggerate injuries to get their guys rest, but this is at least a start.
The NBA’s evolving style of play could also turn some fans away. I mean, did you just watch the All-Star game? Both teams almost scored 200 points. That’s ridiculous. The emergence of analytics have promoted a three-point frenzy. Suddenly, teams have changed how basketball is played and are launching threes at an alarming rate. Per basketball-reference.com, the Houston Rockets, through 58 games this year, have attempted 2308 three-pointers which is currently 11th all-time in NBA history for a single season. They’re attempting 39.8 threes per game. No one else in NBA history has even attempted 35 per game. It’s not entertaining to watch guys just launch threes all the time. Basketball used to be about strategy, defense, exciting dunks, and yes, scoring, but now teams are obsessed with the three-ball. This style of play leads to there only being a small number of contenders. Arguably, the top four contenders right now are the Warriors, the Cavaliers, the Celtics, and the Rockets. It’s no accident that these teams are the top four teams in the NBA in threes made and four of the top five in threes attempted.
(Note: I didn’t include the Spurs, who have the 2nd best record in the West, because they never addressed the gaping hole at PG. They may be “contenders” but I don’t see them going anywhere unless Dejounte Murray makes a leap in the Playoffs.)
Here’s my question: Why am I going to shell out money for a team that has no chance of being competitive? Why would I continue to cheer for my favorite team if they never have a shot at winning the championship? Why am I going to pay hundreds of dollars for League Pass or attending games or purchasing merchandise if my team has no chance? Meanwhile, college basketball is the most unpredictable as it has ever been. Literally anyone could win the title this year and if I’m a fan of Louisville (I am), I’m going to be much more engaged in what’s happening with them and their pursuit of a Final Four or National Title then I am the fledgling/frustrating Bulls (partially true). Did I mention that it’s cheaper to go to collegiate basketball games? Did I mention that a drive to Louisville for me is half the drive time of driving to Indianapolis and I don’t have to spend the night? Oh, and college basketball teams only play twice a week, for around 30 games total, and are already available with my cable subscription at no extra cost or in some cases, on local TV. Again, why am I going to invest in the NBA product if it’s expensive and my team doesn’t have a chance? There are alternatives.
Overexposure is the other major pitfall the NBA needs to avoid. The NFL is currently battling this very problem: There are games on Thursdays, Sundays, Mondays and some Saturdays later in the season. You can literally watch NBA basketball on national television seven nights a week right now: TNT on Mondays/Thursday, NBATV on Tuesday, ESPN on Wednesday/Friday, ABC on Saturday/Sunday. It’s ridiculous. The product the NBA is overexposing is also curious. Big market teams that are mediocre like the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers, my beloved and my beloved Chicago Bulls play at least 30 nationally televised games per season. Meanwhile, interesting teams like the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, who have one of the best five players in the NBA, are relegated to League Pass. The casual fan is not interested in buying League Pass. They’ll watch what’s on ESPN or TNT if they want to watch basketball. Don’t you want them to see the best of the best instead of catering to big markets?
Just like Sears, WCW, the NFL, and other giants that we’ve seen in our culture, the NBA will have some major obstacles to overcome if they want to remain the superpower they currently are. The ratings for the All-Star game were the highest they’ve been since 2013. The NBA is riding high right now, but could soon be facing some major backlash. Are they prepared for these challenges or are they content where they are? No one is invincible – not even the mighty National Basketball Association.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.