NBA’s success built on trust, forward thinking
The NBA’s strengths were in full view during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. While others may be tired of hearing about this, it’s hard to ignore — and not appreciate — how the league is riding a wave that has been good for the game, fans and the business of basketball.
First, it starts with the game, which is incredibly healthy. In a meeting room last February in Boston, I listened as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talked to Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey about improving the All-Star Game, just after the league’s much-derided affair in New Orleans, which featured little effort by players and less interest by fans. Silver mentioned a conversation he had with NBPA President Chris Paul days earlier, which led to the successful change to install team captains and a draft for this year’s game at Staples Center. This goes to the heart of Silver’s tenure — focus on the game, work with the players to experiment and eventually improve the product. Silver’s swiftness in addressing this issue shows effective leadership, but it only works because of the trust and respect players and management have built, together. Just look at other leagues and their current relationship to appreciate how remarkable the trust is between Silver and the players.
Silver’s state-of-the-league press conference was easy lifting for the 55-year-old. Review it and see for yourself: Basic issues, from growth of the G League to international development, to relationships between players and referees, to player activism. The only topics that caught my eye were Silver’s tepid response on the one-and-done issue — he is waiting on results from an NCAA commission led by Condoleezza Rice and honestly noted how conflicted the league was on the rule. Reading between the lines, I see a league that doesn’t know how to act, leading me to believe it won’t.
The other issue was possible legalization of gambling, and the league’s framework for a 1 percent integrity fee, or royalty to the league, on states considering sports betting bills in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling. Silver’s point is the league will spend around $7.5 billion creating the content and games that will be wagered on. “So this notion that as the intellectual property creators that we should receive a 1 percent fee seems very fair to me,” he said. He added that the league will incur “enormous additional expenses” with legalized betting that “go directly to integrity.” While he didn’t say the integrity fee is a dealbreaker (“we’ve never suggested that this is the only way to look at it”), it’s clear this is one way to cash in on the massive revenue from opening up sports gambling.
Speaking of revenue, from talking to sources close to the league, Silver’s focus, and challenge from his group of demanding bosses, is financial growth. Where can the league take big swings that could result in a big payday? There’s gambling. There’s global revenue. The league could look at taking equity in growth companies like the NFL has done. It sees esports as a growth engine, which was evident by it being a featured topic at its NBA Tech Summit. There, some very smart people made some extremely bold predictions. First-movers such as Ted Leonsis and Vivek Ranadivé stressed that esports is among the biggest business opportunities for the league, and that it will become one of the biggest sports worldwide, bigger than NBA or the NFL. Not surprisingly, there weren’t any naysayers on the panel, the closest being Fanatics Chair and 76ers limited partner Michael Rubin, who acknowledged he was an early skeptic but now is among the converted.
Some of the themes to watch in the space are: Will there be a movement away from shooter games to creating ones more family oriented where the league could own the intellectual property? Will players unionize and how will the players be treated as the industry continues to mature? Will an infrastructure be established on processes, structure, collective bargaining and even keeping players safe?
Panelists stressed that as gambling becomes legalized and more accessible, esports offers the perfect mix of gaming, gambling and content in a digital environment perfectly suited to the next generation. I’m on the fence on the future influence of esports, but it’s difficult to ignore the weight of the predictions from Leonsis and Ranadivé.
Another discussion at the Tech Summit focused on storytelling, and that applies to today’s players. Everywhere you look, the stars in the NBA are telling their story directly to fans, and their insightful understanding of media plays to their strengths. You see players crossing over into pop culture and the mainstream with efforts like Kevin Durant’s “Swagger” series with Apple and producer Brian Grazer, to the highly hyped comedy “Uncle Drew,” featuring Kyrie Irving, that will hit theaters in June.
The massive amount of press coverage that the NBA received over the Presidents Day weekend, when it competed against the Winter Olympics and Daytona 500, shows how the stories of today’s players resonate with society. I was struck not only by the volume of coverage, but also by the diversity of it. Yes, you had the political and social advocacy debate between LeBron James and Laura Ingraham, but you also had numerous clips on the emergence of Greek standout Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid talking about his travel habits in The New York Times’ “Carry On” travel feature, and the entertainment strategies of players profiled in the Hollywood trades and The New York Times Business section, which stated, “NBA players as Hollywood hotshots? It’s not a far-fetched notion.” Bottom line is players are smartly using all of the distribution platforms for quality storytelling, and taking their message and media into their own hands. I was also struck prior to tipoff of the All-Star Game how the team captains, LeBron and Stephen Curry, elegantly addressed the crowd from center court, thanking fans, the city of L.A. and promoting their respective charities for the game: Brotherhood Crusade and After School All-Stars.
And let’s not forget who else is reaping the benefit of this rising tide. ESPN is seeing its massive nine-year media bet come to fruition, as it has a progressive partner willing to experiment. The two sides have worked hard to follow the smart script of the NFL and make the NBA a year-round proposition — from the draft, to free agency, to the summer league all leading into the regular and postseason.
All of this points to a well-managed and operated sports enterprise that serves its base, which is different in every league. There will be headwinds — we don’t know what they will be or when they will hit. Could be operational failure, player/owner misconduct, integrity, or legal issues. Yes, many have fatigue of the “hot” NBA stories. I get it. I may have it, too. But from my perch, seeing the good, bad and indifferent of the sports business, it’s fascinating and encouraging to see a league so successfully meet the demands of its fans, players and business partners.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.