AL HAMNIK: NBA 'image' problem not affecting its cash flow

2014-02-17T18:15:00Z 2014-07-22T17:54:04Z AL HAMNIK: NBA 'image' problem not affecting its cash flowAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
February 17, 2014 6:15 pm  • 

I love pro basketball. Give me the NBA 12 months, 365 days a year. I love the job TNT does and its excellent team of announcers.

Can't get enough of Charles, Shaq, Ernie and Kenny back in the Atlanta studios.

So why is pro basketball only the FIFTH most popular sport in the United States, according to a recent Harris poll? That's right, No. 5 behind pro football, Major League Baseball, college football and auto racing.

It's no secret, I guess.

Image.

The middle-aged fans I talk to accuse today's NBA of catering to the Hip-Hop generation, ignoring defense and emphasizing flash over substance.

Players with tattoos over their entire bodies are labeled "thugs," which is not true by any stretch of the imagination. But that "image" is out there.

Sunday's NBA All-Star classic saw the East beat the West, 163-155, for the most points scored in the game's history as any one of eight different players could have earned MVP honors.

This was a nonstop basketball ballet with incredible moves that defied gravity, and effortless shots from every spot on the court.

But TNT did dribble the ball off its corporate foot by force-feeding a national audience way too much flash with a parade of frenetic, crotch-grabbing, fist-pumping Hip-Hop artists that monopolized pre-game festivities.

One act after another, all fighting for the mic at center court while members of the East and West squads resembled cardboard cutouts, standing in the shadows.

Watching all this, I could make sense of that Harris poll and the national breakdown it presented: NFL (35 percent), MLB (14 percent), college football (11 percent), auto racing (7 percent), NBA (6 percent), pro hockey (5 percent), men's college basketball (3 percent), men's golf, soccer and swimming (2 percent).

Pro football was ranked as the most popular sport in this country for the 30th consecutive year.

As for the NBA's lukewarm reception, it should be noted the league boasted a 13 percent share, good for third, in 1998 — Michael Jordan's final season with the Bulls.

Did MJ, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing make the game much purer and worthwhile back then?

The league has tried to improve its image, make no mistake. Years ago, commissioner David Stern issued a dress code for players — shirt or sweater, tie, dress pants, no gym shoes.

It lasted a few weeks, at best.

Watch players today arrive at NBA arenas and most — other than fashion plates like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — are wearing jeans and sweatshirts.

The Bulls' free-spirited Joakim Noah comes to the United Center looking like a guy who sleeps in his car. That shouldn't matter. It's his marquee game fans love.

Despite a quality product with entertaining teams and stars, the NBA's national appeal has hovered between 4 percent to 7 percent over the past decade.

And this, from Forbes: franchise values jumped to $634 million last year — an increase of 25 percent.

And still, there's an image problem.

New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will take those numbers over image any day, and that is sad.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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