Blame Twitter: Why the NFL's Hot and the NBA's Not
What Happened When a League Got High On Its Own Supply
This tweet from Myles frames the issue perfectly. On Monday, I checked in on NBA Media Day, that “first day of school,” when pro basketball teams open for training camp. Typically, this is a happy occasion, full of possibilities, that magical moment when every team is undefeated. Time for some unbridled enthusiasm, a welcome respite from life’s drudgeries. Except, this year, the entire event was overtaken by the spectre of player vaccination, or lack thereof. Despite the NBA’s stated 90% vax rate, the lack of vax issue absolutely dominated media coverage.
Big headlines over Nets star Kyrie Irving and vax. Big headlines over Bradley Beal and vax. Big headlines over Warriors role player Andrew Wiggins and vax. Wait, is there even a season taking place?
Veteran Magic center Robin Lopez poked fun at vax-hesitant players, joking,
I'm still not sure that Milwaukee's actually won the championship. I wasn't there, I didn't watch the game myself. There's gotta be some kind of proof. I'm gonna do my own research and figure out if they won it.
That’s pretty funny, but watching it reminded me that the Bucks had indeed won the championship, a fact that seemed almost like an irrelevant afterthought amid the maelstrom of NBA player vax news coverage.
The NBA’s plight harkens back to a Pat Riley aphorism that can be applied to basketball, business, or just any large-scale endeavor: Keep the main thing the main thing.
I’m not saying that I necessarily follow Riley’s advice. This Substack exists out of an inability to stick within sensible confines. But, it’s generally a good rule when you’re presiding over a massive operation.
Meanwhile, there’s been a recent intriguing development in the world of sports entertainment. After a slight Covid-era dip, NFL viewership has come roaring back to life. That’s a little surprising, considering how America hasn’t exactly left the pandemic fog. We are still collectively scuffling, but football is king, functional in a country that’s less so. We’ve yet to fully rise, but the NFL is wide awake.
I personally don’t give too much of a shit about football, but hey, I’ll watch it with my neighbor sometimes. On the exercise bike, I’ll check in on 49ers vs. Packers on Sunday night and just fall into the spectacle of it all. It’s Week 3 and there are storylines, a legitimate sense of stakes. Something about Packers QB Aaron Rodgers getting recruited to join the Niners, something about Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo having to prove his mettle after nearly getting replaced. I can’t say I followed all of it completely, but my immersion in it blocked out any thoughts of broader concerns for a few hours. If sports is the opiate of the masses, football might be the highest grade. Based on Day 1 of training camp, basketball is signaling that its opiate is cut with baby laxative, laundry detergent and maybe some rabbit shit.
What’s the NFL player vaccination rate? The league said it was 93% at last check, if you trust that number, but it doesn’t seem like people care so much. The NFL makes life harder on the officially unvaccinated players, and that’s that. A civil libertarian could argue against the measures but those are the measures and the NFL media moves on. I recall something about quarterback Cam Newton being anti-vax and getting released from the Patriots, but that news wasn’t exactly a dominant storyline. Football football football. There are games to play and money to make. Meanwhile, the current NBA fixation is on unhappy 76er All-Star Ben Simmons, who’s holding out of playing games, plus an obsession with every players’ mRNA takes. We’re sitting here, talking about vaxxes. Not a game, not a game. Vaxxes.
Here’s a quick and dirty comparison between leagues this year. The NFL’s 2021 network TV opener got 26.4 million viewers, only 800K fewer than the NFL opener received a decade ago, in 2011. So, across a decade, the new modern counting system says that NFL viewership stayed flat. That’s an accomplishment, considering this was an epoch that saw other types of TV shows lose audience share.
Now let’s look at NBA network TV openers, separated by a decade (2021 vs. 2011). Here, the cross-decade comparison is made easier because the network slate TV (non standalone Christmas Day extravaganza) opener is Lakers vs. Celtics in both instances, and on ABC in both instances, and both games were on January 30. In 2011, the Lakers-Celtics ABC opener got 7 million viewers. In 2021, the Lakers-Celtics ABC opener got … 2.74 million viewers. Hoo boy.
So, the NFL stayed flat over the last decade, but the NBA saw its network opener fall to a number that’s 39% of the original. This huge dichotomy defies simple explanation. It can’t just reduce down to a criticism over how the NBA went woke and the NFL didn’t. Football actually does a lot of corporately curated signaling, on a range of social issues. The league has even made waves by playing “The Black National Anthem,” in addition to the standard version. Some people don’t like that, but the NFL’s still thriving at a moment when the NBA is sputtering. So what gives?
There are many factors to explain the difference, but as a general rule, the NFL keeps the main thing the main thing. That sport is totally obsessed with itself, as a sport. Tony Romo and the other announcers are actively trying to outdo one another in explaining intricate strategy, trusting that the normie audience will follow along.
But how did football stick to the main thing in these turbulent times? Well, it managed to avoid a major cultural distraction generator. Remember that, back around 2015 to 2016, the NBA dived headfirst into Twitter, encouraged by the broader, Twitter-addicted media along the way. And Twitter is terrible, save for that Myles Brown tweet above. Its main modern function seems to be allowing sociopaths to boost their reputations at the expense of other people. A bit of Twitter can be nice, but drink too much of it in and it’s poison. The NBA encouraged its stars and media members to chug. The results are what they are.
Again, the Twitterization of the NBA wasn’t incidental, some unexpected flourishing similar to what other sports saw. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey credits the NBA for a top-down cultivation of the “NBA Twitter” phenomenon, saying to a HoopsHype podcast on August 20, 2018, “I think NBA Twitter, I think the first reasons it’s become strong is the league’s acceptance of it. Not just acceptance but usage of it.” TJ Adeshola, Twitter’s head of sports league partnership, told the Washington Post that same year:
NBA Twitter just has this really special connectivity to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s really reflective of the league’s approach in the broader marketplace to be innovative, to give their players this level of authenticity and connectivity. It’s relatively unprecedented in the sports space, which lends itself to a perfect, perfect marriage with a Twitter platform. The league has been the one to lift up the hood and give folks a unique view.
Ah yes, what could go wrong?
I’ll add that I have memories of distant Warriors media days past, wherein every rookie was marched up to a “social media station,” so as to properly plug his brain into all the platforms. Apparently I didn’t imagine that because Adam Silver told a 2016 South by Southwest audience, “I think we were early adopters in terms of encouraging our players on social media. When a rookie comes into the league we actually set up stations with Facebook, Twitter, etc. to authenticate them and make sure it’s them.”
Silver would conclude that thought with, “Social media from our players makes our ratings higher and brand stronger.”
Back in 2016, the degree of Twitter utopianism in sports media was nearly Arab Spring level. This January 8, 2016 New Republic article titled, “NBA Twitter is Changing the Way We Watch Sports,” is quite the time capsule artifact:
On the front page of NBA.com there is a section called NBA Pulse, which ranks the top three trending players on Twitter by “mentions per hour” in real-time. This prominent placement is no gimmick. None of the other American sports leagues put such an emphasis on the unfiltered, in the moment opinions of their players and fans as the NBA does, and for good reason.
The article features the subheadline, “The NBA is tailor-made for social media—will that help it supplant the NFL as America's game?” You look at this idea of the NBA supplanting the NFL and just marvel at what a different time 2016 was and what seemed possible. These days, big-game NBA viewership is about a tenth of the NFL’s, roughly the population difference between Oklahoma and California. I look up articles from a half-decade ago that promote the idea of the NBA overtaking the NFL and it feels like reading old dispatches of a cult leader’s wild prophecies. People believed this crazy stuff? Did almost anything seem plausible in the TED Talk era?
From the New Republic article:
Twitter has become the epicenter of basketball fandom, a beating heart and a central nervous system, a place where serious statistical analysis flows alongside highlights, jokes, exclamations, and inane trash talk from every conceivable corner of the world. The NBA Twitter ecosystem includes professional gamblers, math geniuses, journalists, front office insiders, superfans, team PR reps, massive athletic apparel brands, cable news anchors, rappers, heads of state, and the very players being discussed. For football and baseball the killer app second screen experience is fantasy sports; for basketball it is Twitter.
Maybe relying on a cacophony of disparate entities with differing interests was a bad business strategy? Maybe, sometimes, it’s just good to have a strong executive, implementing a vision. Then again, the NBA and its supporters in media did believe the sport had a guiding light through all of this.
There’s another great NBA time capsule artifact, an article in The Atlantic, titled, “How the NBA’s Progressivism Is Helping It Thrive.” That article’s subhead reads, “It’s long been America's most forward-thinking sports league—both in terms of its politics and its marketing strategy.”
By the way, the idea that you can really cash in on moral superiority is a hilarious suggestion, the sort of neoliberal notion that seems on the nose enough to be satire. “We’re making tons of money because we’re better people than you are,” is the kind of grotesque ethos the “bootstraps” conservatives of old would have been too shy to voice aloud. But there we were, back in the heady times of 2016, right before Donald Trump got elected. Everything was getting smarter and better and more virtuous and it was all so inevitable.
What’s notable about the Atlantic article is how it reads so much like the New Republic article, even if the subject material is theoretically different. As in, the league’s political signaling is completely conflated with its social media strategy and vice versa. The Atlantic article begins,
In February, the NBA became the first professional sports league to pass one billion social-media likes and followers across all league, team, and player accounts. Basketball Twitter has emerged as an entity unto itself--NBA.com now tracks the number of NBA-related tweets on its homepage; the number, around 75 million, ticks higher and higher, and shows no sign of slowing.
Nor does the business of the NBA generally. This year, the league broke its all-time attendance record: Nearly 22 million fans streamed into stadiums throughout the regular season. TV viewership rose by 19 percent, the number of NBA League Pass subscriptions was 10 percent higher than last year, and the league’s website saw visits rise by 27 percent. Following the 2014-2015 season, in which according to Forbes, the NBA shattered its pre-existing revenue benchmark at $5.2 billion, the money continues to flood in. This, in large part, is due to TV contracts that now stretch further into the future and valuable new sponsorship deals. These deals have reportedly greatly increased in value due to the league’s revolutionary social-media strategy, which has cause its reach and popularity to boom.
It’s like I’m reading descriptions of ritzy 1920s parties that preceded the stock market crash. Buying on margin is the bee’s knees, or so I told the flapper after we sneaked a sip of hooch. The gal shot right back at me that NBA Twitter was some real hotsy-totsy stuff. Up up and away. From The Atlantic, quoting a marketing professor:
It’s difficult to say how Basketball Twitter will evolve in the years to come, but one thing is for sure: The NBA’s approach is good business even if, as Lewis suggests, it doesn’t seem like a business strategy. “It feels 100 percent genuine, and that’s the best kind of marketing.”
For what it’s worth, the Atlantic article is fairly light on proving the sport’s progressive bonafides, beyond noting that the players are mostly Black. Massive credit is given for ousting racist former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which is a bit like framing atonement as achievement. But the details aren’t what matter here. It’s branding, a progressive label that “feels 100 percent genuine.”
The article wonders how NBA Twitter might evolve and so I’ll add that epilogue: Away from the game. The whole thing metastasized into transactional wishcasting and peripheral conversations where people competed for status over their purported values. Additionally, and I didn’t mention this in my article on the decline of sports writer happiness, but Twitter really curdled for my colleagues over the last half-decade. It became less a breezy two-way conversation and more a journey into angry chaos, a dangerous stream to be tested with the wariness of a gazelle stepping through the croc-infested Nile. As in, you need to use it, but its use comes with the sense that you could lose it all. Such an environment isn’t necessarily the greatest incubator for generating sports enthusiasm.
I was all set to write something on how football smartly charted a better course than the NBA, but I can’t find any real genius in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s actions. I just think the NFL was mostly saved by not going Full Twitter. While football, like all sports, dabbled in Twitter, the medium never became the sport’s “central nervous system” or “beating heart.” It’s just a place where you can see some NFL highlights, which is exactly what it should be. Marshall McLuhan made some good points, but they weren’t about sports. When you have a league, the medium isn’t the message. The games are.
Part of the issue with going Full Twitter is it trains your media apparatus to respond in kind. I’m not blaming the NBA media, necessarily. I’m just noting that the media and the sport are now locked in a codependent relationship that, long ago, lurched into unhealthy territory. It happened in the aftermath of the NBA, as a social media branding exercise, solidifying a status as “the progressive league,” whatever that means. This then gave the media moral authority to police the NBA over whether it was living up to its own standards.
It’s an impossible standard, for a variety of reasons. One is that the definition of what’s progressive is constantly shifting. Another is that players, whose lives revolve around a form of physical combat that yields vast sums of money, don’t have the most up-to-date progressive values. “Winner take all” is not a mentality that jibes with the “Be Kind” slogan I see plastered on so many T-shirts when I drive around Berkeley. But namely, the reason the NBA can’t live up to its modern branding is because it is a business, and we know it is a business. Damn near every time a player gets traded, he explains, “It’s a business.”
In a business context, you can let employees freely speak their minds. You can even do some cringe corporate signaling and not be worse for wear. Your players, in your 80% Black league, might even take a controversial stand on an issue regarding race, and your fans won’t turn their backs.
But if you, top-down, embrace a brand of yourself as a thing, that thing will follow you. People sometimes write to me, questioning why the NBA gets more criticism for kissing China’s ass when so many American conglomerates have their lips firmly planted. Well, for one thing, the NBA branded itself as all-important conquerors of the East. These other corporations were smart enough to just quietly make widgets in Guangzhou when nobody was looking. They didn’t advertise the fact to their customers. The NBA did, though, out of an insecurity, a need to advertise beating the NFL on an international level because it could not compete domestically. Similarly, the NBA wanted to cynically max out on speaking the language of the cultural vanguard, while using its platforms, only to learn later of costs attached. Now, instead of just worrying about getting players vaccinated for health reasons, it must worry about how a lack of vaccination undercuts its progressive image.
By the way, if you believe that the NBA vaccination rate is 90%, you’re more than welcome to. The overall responses from players out of Monday’s opening of training camp just aren’t exactly commensurate with a 90% vaxxed population. When you consider a) how easy it is to get a fake vaccine card and b) that a team’s “compliance officer” on these matters is often its head trainer, well … er, I mean, I believe that no player is submitting forgeries of these official documents that happen to look like rumpled elementary school library cards, please don’t sue me. But my overall point in mentioning this is that, much as everyone wants as much health attained as is humanly possible, we’re probably looking at Bunny Colvin’s paper bag speech in terms of enforcement.
If some NBA player does get caught with a fake vaccine card, it will be an eternal news cycle — like the one we’re mired in over Ben Simmons’ trade request, only with more angry moralizing. If an NFL player gets similarly caught, it’s a ProFootballTalk post that gets washed away by next Sunday’s action. That’s where the NBA is at. That’s where the NFL is at. The former invested in endless conversation for the sake of conversation. The latter just kept playing. Playing to win works out better than playing just to talk.
The NBA-NFL divide is a perfect allegory for the country as a whole. The NBA is cool, it’s hip, it’s the future, it’s WAY bigger on social media, and it’s getting absolutely crushed by the NFL. The NBA may be mostly black players but it’s the sport of my people and Twitter’s population - social science college graduates. The league will eventually learn that catering SO heavily to this small population at the expense of the wider public is terrible business, but for now the NBA just gets think-pieces from people like me on how it’s the future of sports and entertainment while its ratings tank and the NFL - the “boomer league” - just keeps printing money.
You could make a good argument about the relative importance of each regular season game for the NBA vs NFL and come to some valid conclusions about why opening day ratings aren't a fair comparison.
And you could maybe make the point that the NFL, like baseball, has ratings carried by old people who aren't NBA fans. And advertisers (the ones paying for the massive TV contracts which fuel the leagues) don't care about old people.
Cool. So what if we look at the Super Bowl vs NBA Finals? And only for the key demo (18-49 year olds). Yeah, the Super Bowl is more of an event itself that appeals beyond the sports fan... but it should be close, right?
In 2021, the Super Bowl nabbed 34.3 million viewers in the key demo. Which is a huge decline from a decade ago when it was routinely in the 50 million range.
The 2021 NBA Finals? The clinching game 6 brought in a peak of 16.6 million TOTAL viewers.
The NBA is harder to watch in ways that the ratings folks count. The regional sports networks that show most local games require expensive and archaic cable packages in most markets. The "national" games are still largely on cable tv. I'd love to know what percentage of fans illegally stream games. But regardless, that has to lead to lesser interest by the time we hit the later rounds of the playoffs. At least to some degree.
Still I'll agree the embrace of spectacle over sport (I'm taking "twitterization" to be a metaphor for that) has to be at least a decent share of the issue.
Fans, especially more conservative white fans who make up close to half the country and an even greater share of the TV audience, get fairly stereotyped for complaining about aesthetics or distractions from the game. Too much complaining, too much showboating, too much flopping, too much traveling (never try to explain the two step rule to the 63 year old guy behind you who is wearing a football jersey to an NBA game and is four $11 beers into the night).
I don't want to try and guess what amount of that is code for people not liking the antics of African American athletes. I'm sure it's a big number. But still, the NFL put a stop to elaborate endzone dances. Offsides and false start penalties limit how much time a player can spend complaining about a call. And a travel just seems to get way more negative energy than a holding call that is missed. Point being, out of structure of the game and intentional changes - the NFL shuts down a lot of the stuff the angry old drunk guy behind you might complain about.
The NBA? They turn it into youtube clips. They've gotten way better about policing flopping and excessive fighting with refs. But people still see James Harden play basketball. Nothing has been fixed.
And you're dead on that the spectacle just gets worse when you're away from the court. 20% of the screen being taken up by "Kyrie Irving Vaccination Status" is absurd. This isn't breaking news about a terrorist attack. And maybe the NBA media should consider how their largely black audience feels considering black male americans have among the lowest vaccination rates for any group. The NBA, teams and cities can push players to get vaccinated. The media? Stay out. Maybe demonizing players over an issue that a lot of fans can relate to is a bad move.
Last thing I'll say is, the Last Dance was eye opening for a ton of casual basketball fans. Michael Jordan was/is a god among athletes and celebrities. But maybe a lot of that status is because in the 80s/90s all we saw were the dunks, the steals, the smile. You had to be plugged into the newspaper gossip to know about the gambling and the tormenting of teammates. Maybe if Jordan was born 30 years later and was an avid social media user, we would really hate what we saw. And if he stayed off social media, the way a small handful of stars do? We probably would also like him less. Why won't he open up to us?
I think Bill Simmons had a line way back about how if you actually got to know a lot of the people you idolize, you really wouldn't like them. I can attest from my own experiences that he's probably dead on. But no matter how carefully curated the tweets or IG posts are, we're all forced into getting to know the NBA players in a way that no other sport emphasizes. And I'm certain there are plenty of good dudes in the NBA. That doesn't mean we actually want to be friends with them.