Sunday, March 20, 2016

The NBA and March Madness

Against all odds, March Madness is happening.

To those who have grown up with the NCAA's Division I basketball championship as an American cultural mainstay, the event feels ordinary. Ardent sports fans, gamblers and the alumni of participating schools largely consider it the biggest sports happening of the spring season. Casual sports fans, office pool participants and culture watchers give it some degree of attention.

To cold, emotionless eyes, however, the popularity of March Madness a miracle. The players aren't very good, at least compared to NBA professionals. The refereeing is inconsistent and riddled with errors. Millions of people could choose to watch the best players in the world play the exact same sport at the exact same time, but they choose not to.

When it comes to the sport of basketball, the results indicate that the NCAA is doing something right or the NBA is doing something wrong; or both. In no other highly promoted sport to the results shake out like this. The College World Series draws eyeballs and the College Football Playoff draws more, but neither MLB nor the NFL are out-done by an event put on by their college counterpart. Even in hockey, where Canada's sports culture obsesses over the World Junior Championships once a year, the attention paid to the amateurs never reaches the level paid to the pros.

I, and many other Bucks fans, get annoyed by the whole thing. It's annoying to me when I see a crowd of people watching NCAA tournament games on TVs in the Bradley Center concourse while a Bucks game is going on. (Prepare for this if you're attending today's game against the Jazz, as the Badgers tip off right around the time the Bucks' fourth quarter will begin.) It's annoying to me when the local media prioritizes the college game. It's annoying to me that sports bars put the sound on for Marquette or Wisconsin. (Though the last two annoyances are less of a problem than in recent years.)

NCAA basketball has two intrinsic advantages that the NBA cannot match: amateurism and energy. There will always be a segment of the population that is turned off by professionalism in sports. That segment is dwindling, but it exists. College hoops also has an inherent energy because of student fans and alumni. No matter how passionate NBA fans get, they can never quite match that.

Amateurism and energy are usually not enough to overcome quality, however. Student fans and alumni exist in college football and Canadian junior hockey, yet the professionals reign supreme.

So, what is it? Why has the NBA become one of the few sports where the culture cares less when the quality of play improves?

Any reason for March Madness's primacy in the basketball world is going to be an educated guess, but there are several possible possibilities. All of them are choices. The NBA could choose to try any or all of them.

Advertising

Televised NBA games have drifted closer and closer to NASCAR, while the viewing experience during NCAA tournament games has remained relatively ad-free. The name of the arena -- usually containing a sponsor -- is plastered on the court of NBA games. While NCAA tournament courts also include the arena's name, the font stays the same as all other markings and the city, round and NCAA slogans ("March Madness" and "Road to the Final Four") get prime on-camera real estate. College basketball tournament games also have no sponsor logos on the sidelines, attached to the basket stanchion or on sideline chairs. NBA arenas have ads in many or all of those places.

Sports fans seem to be accepting of some level of advertising. We also know that excessive amounts can be a turn off. The NCAA tournament's clean on-camera look could be something for NBA arenas to consider.

Officiating

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: compared to NBA referees, college basketball refs are bad.

What NCAA officiating does possibly have going for it is the general concept of its officiating. NCAA referees call a much tighter game. Shooting fouls are rare. Continuation barely exists. Gray areas like moving screens, contact during rebounds and hand checking are forgiven less often. Flopping is a far less effective strategy.

Many NBA fans enjoy the general officiating concept of the League. The idea of the "crafty veteran" who can draw calls is an endearing concept, especially if that veteran plays for the home team.

The question is whether the NBA's officiating is a turn-off for rank and file sports fans. There is certainly evidence that it is. This blog would not be the first publication to point out that a lot of sports fans believe that star players and teams are favored by officials. Some college basketball fans feel the same way, but it's fair to say that the NBA is a more common target for complaints of favored officiating for stars.

NCAA basketball officials also are less tolerant of expressive players. NBA players are allowed to complain about calls to a degree that college basketball officials do not tolerate. Pro players also celebrate big plays in ways that come closer reaching the level of "taunting".

Player expressiveness is one area where I enjoy the NBA culture. In this case, however, I am not the target audience. I already love the NBA. But I would continue to love it if some of the more aggressive expressiveness were reigned in, and that might draw in some people who are turned off by the current state of affairs.

Scheduling

The NBA is a business and college basketball is not. When it comes to any business, it is hard to begrudge a business owner who wants to maximize business revenues. The NBA attempts to do this by scheduling lots of regular season games -- 82, compared to less than 35 per college basketball team -- and by having seven game Playoff series instead of single-elimination Playoffs.

In terms of raw dollars, things are working out for the NBA. The highest per-school television payouts in college sports are to Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams, which are approximately $34 million per year. The Lakers likely get about five times that for local games, and will get somewhere around $50 million from the NBA's national TV games. For all the talk Kentucky basketball players making money for their school, the reality is that they draw a tiny amount compared to NBA players. The fact that NBA players play so many more games is a huge part of that.

It is an open question, however, whether the NBA's "more is more" scheduling strategy is a proverbial case of stepping over dollars to pick up dimes. Yes, the teams make a lot of money by scheduling a lot of games. But at what cost? Last night's Spurs vs. Warriors game -- a primetime, nationally televised game featuring teams having two of the greatest regular seasons in League history -- was out-drawn in both the 18-49 demographic and total viewers by a semi-competitive round-of-32 NCAA tournament game between Kansas and UConn. It was only one night, but it was symptomatic of the fact that the NBA holds a place in the American sports culture that sits below the NFL, Olympics, NCAA March Madness, college football and perhaps even the FIFA World Cup.

***

Perhaps the NBA will look at the structure of their business and perhaps they won't.

Perhaps the NBA already has, and they believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps basketball is the rare case where sports fans prefer amateurs to professionals, and that is why things are the way they are. Or perhaps NBA business executives believe that violence is the reason that the NFL out-paces the NBA. Or maybe it's something else.

At some point, the NBA will thirst for growth. It is the nature of any business. When that happens, they would do well to assess their policies on advertising, officiating and scheduling.