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Volume 20 No. 42
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Readers continue to give NBA high marks

News, notes and nuggets that stood out to me from our 13th annual Reader Survey.

The overwhelmingly positive perception of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA is industrywide and echoed in our Reader Survey, which reflects the opinions of top decision-makers in sports. This survey goes wide, and goes deep, and there is an unquestioned level of admiration and respect for the NBA. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a veteran NFL executive, as we talked through the recent Jerry Jones versus NFL controversy. Our collective thought: How often do NFL owners look at the nearly three-year extended honeymoon of Silver and say to themselves, “Why can’t we have that?” They see Silver’s healthy relationship with owners, players, fans, media and partners and surely envy that. It’s something their leader, Roger Goodell, has just never been able to fully crack in his 11 years for various reasons. The NBA was voted the hottest sports property, the property a brand would most want to align itself with, the wisest franchise investment, and Silver runs away with the most effective commissioner vote. The NBA remains the cool kid everyone wants to be around. There will be a reset; Sliver and company will face controversy and headwinds — it could come at any moment. But their success isn’t by accident; it’s about the leadership and progressive mindset across the league, teams and players.

HOT, AND NOT HOT, SPORTS: I tend to fall in line with the readers’ view of growth sports. The NBA ascends, and while I still believe in the power of the NFL, its incredibly challenging season and the changing habits of people on Sundays have me concerned. I see growth for MLS, feel college sports remains an underrated property and generally like where MLB is going under Rob Manfred (although an overwhelming 70 percent are crying out for some form of pace-of-play initiatives). But to think the Premier League and Overwatch rank ahead of the NHL or others surprised me.

Much of this matches up to when I go speak at public events or college campuses. I always ask about sports fandom and see a lot of hands raised for the NBA and even MLS (especially on campus). NFL gets its share but not as many among young people. College is steady, while esports is inconsistent. But one area I grow increasingly concerned about is NASCAR and motorsports, which just don’t register. One example: Recently I was in Tampa, where I asked a group of about 300 people, largely students, about the sports they follow closely. When asked about NASCAR specifically, no one raised their hand. One of the speakers on stage stopped me. “Wait,” he said. “Do that again. Did no one raise their hand?” We did it again, and no one raised their hand. He had wide eyes and a slight shake of his head. Yes, that’s a focus group of one, but it’s consistent from what I see around the country. And it’s supported by the survey results.

Let’s take a look. Yes, the NFL being tabbed the property headed in the wrong direction with nearly 60 percent might not be a surprise. But NASCAR’s trends are worrisome: it was listed second as headed the wrong way, ranked at the bottom of properties that readers would most want their company aligned with as a sponsor, and 65 percent gave Monster Energy a less-than-effusive grade of “C” or lower when assessing its performance as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top racing series. Changing this narrative is a very, very big challenge for NASCAR executives, who are actively trying new ideas. But one can’t ignore the lack of the energy around the sport; the decline of the car culture doesn’t help; and everyone knows there are too many races and too long a season. It’s hard to see how this turns around without some drastic changes.

Adam Silver presides over the survey-popular NBA. At right: Roger Goodell was first in most intriguing.

LEAGUES AS AGENTS FOR CHANGE: What should a sports league stand for? Should it take public stands when it comes to advocacy or social issues? It’s one of the biggest issues I have been thinking about this year and one I know senior league officials wrestle with. Many owners and leaders don’t feel it’s a league responsibility to take stands on political or social issues. You can marginalize half your fan base with one move. The NBA has been clear that it will support a progressive agenda and won’t support a lack of tolerance and inclusion. They showed that during HB2 and its decision not to play an All-Star Game in North Carolina. Among the readers, a slight majority believe leagues should be social advocates, but it clearly sits across generational lines. More women and young people think leagues should be an active force for social advocacy. That doesn’t surprise me, as most of the data I see about young people is they want to buy into a vision and a belief system. But keep an eye on how public and vocal leagues will be moving forward, as this will continue to be a divisive issue.

POINTS ON PLAYERS: One of the reasons the NBA is so hot is because of the social and cultural impact of their athletes, so I wasn’t surprised that their players made up three of the top-seven most intriguing athletes. I did find it interesting that the most intriguing athlete was not even an active athlete: Colin Kaepernick, whose influence is clearly seen among active players even though nearly 60 percent of readers feel athletes protesting during the national anthem hurts sports viewership/fandom. This year was filled with impressive and intriguing athletes: J.J. Watt was a game-changer and will serve as the model all athletes should use for community spirit. I love what Chris Long stands for — and does. I am impressed by the actions and articulate manner of Stephen Curry, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Jenkins. And yes, I’m a homer, but who isn’t impressed by the agelessness, comportment and style of Tom Brady, who, after Kaepernick, is the most polarizing athlete today. When I grab drinks with my friends, it generally ends up into some form of heated discussion about Brady!

WHAT ELSE STOOD OUT: I wholeheartedly agree with readers that when President Donald Trump spoke in Huntsville, Ala., on Sept. 22, that it resulted in the biggest story of the year in sports business. … A good story for baseball, as 50 percent of respondents cite either Minor League Baseball or MLB as the sport offers the most family-friendly game/event experience. … Respondents are bullish on the Raiders’ potential success in Las Vegas and a clear majority approve of the NFL’s decision to allow the team to relocate. But almost 70 percent feel the decision to allow the Chargers to move to Los Angeles was a poor decision. … In one of the biggest stories in 2018 that I am watching, more than 60 percent of readers believe that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and leave it to the states to determine legal sports betting. That would create a number of new revenue sources and a wild west for those looking to cash in. … Finally, when it comes to gender and ethnic diversity, readers see a big gap in gender and racial equality. Women particularly want to see more progress. This is an important subject at SBJ/SBD, and we hope to outline specific areas of how to shed more light on this critical issue in the months ahead.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at