Friday, December 2, 2016

Milwaukee Shuns the Bucks

The Bucks beat the Nets in Brooklyn last night, 111-93.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you already knew that.  If you're a Milwaukeean, chances are you didn't.

The online Bucks community -- typically residents of Real GM and Twitter -- is beginning to percolate with frustrations about local Bucks coverage.  Specifically, the lack thereof.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is a particularly hot target.  Every Packers game is prognosticated and autopsied as if it were the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Most Bucks games get a short preview and a nominal recap.

News organizations have to go where the readers are.  It's hard to fault the Journal-Sentinel when Wisconsinite's appetite for Packers copy is seemingly limitless.  

Are the Bucks so unworthy of feature articles?  Is, "McCarthy Breaks Traditional Play-Calling Model" -- today's thousand-word tome that meanders from David Bakthiari's footwork to anecdotal breakdowns of run/pass ratios, all as a way of saying 'the Packers do better when they pass a lot' -- necessary, while the most insightful of journalism's five W's, "Why?", is getting completely ignored in Bucks coverage?

Judging from public interest, the answer may be "Yes".  From television ratings to attendance to sports talk radio calls, the advantage the Packers hold over the Bucks is obvious.  In fact, it's not just the "Green & Yellow", as Keith Millard once infamously called it.  The Badgers, Warriors (sorry, they'll never be the Golden Eagles to me) and even high school football grabs more attention from the average Wisconsinite.

It is especially frustrating because the national media cares.  Giannis Antetokounmpo was swarmed by New York area reporters after his exquisite eviscerating of the Nets.  TNT's post-game show, Inside the NBA, ran Bucks highlights after 2:30 a.m. Eastern time without a hint of "let's get this over with".  

In some ways, Milwaukee's shunning of the Bucks is not unique.  The Warriors went through a similar period of on-court success and off-court indifference.   Out of 2.5 million Bay Area households, an average of only 71,000 tuned into Warriors games during their breakout season in 2013.  Viewership rose steadily, to 81,000 in 2014 and 93,000 in 2015, their Championship season.  It wasn't until last season, when Steph Curry became the biggest NBA star since Michael Jordan, that interest skyrocketed.  An average of 243,000 households tuned in to local Warriors games last season, a mind-blowing increase of 160%.  (For context, the second-highest local NBA viewership increase last season was just 17%.)

Anecdotal evidence told the same story for the Dubs.  Even during most of Golden State's 2015 Championship season, local interest was tepid.  Local media -- sports talk radio, newspapers and television -- were dominated by the Giants' World Series run and the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh drama.  A similar dynamic exists in Milwaukee with the Badgers' Playoff bid and the Packers' fan hysteria.  

Milwaukee doesn't love the Bucks, at least not yet.  Could they?  Sure.  The more important question is, will they?

Milwaukee's apathy towards the Bucks is part circumstance.  The city does not have the urban eruditeness of New York or Los Angeles, and it never will.  The NFL, which has become America's version of what soccer is in Europe, is close by.  Milwaukee can never be San Antonio, Sacramento or Salt Lake City, where the local pro basketball is beloved by default.  An NFL team in any one of those cities would decimate interest in the NBA.

Still, why can't Milwaukee be Portland?  College football dominates the fall and soccer dominates the summer, but the Blazers still have space.  Even in the low, 'JailBlazers' years, the team's average attendance dipped below 16,000 just once.  The Bucks have drawn less than 16,000 per game for nine straight seasons and are on pace to do it again in 2017.

Sports fans reward success and continuity.  The Blazers have had both and the Bucks haven't.  The good news is that the latter is changing.

The Bucks have put a lot of effort in to changing the image of the team.  Effort is good, but not decisive.  No company worked harder than Microsoft to gain market share in personal computing.  Apple still dominates the market for personal smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

NBA basketball is not electronics and the Bucks are not Apple.  NBA franchise rules prohibit the Bucks from taking the type of bold, innovative steps Apple took to create the iPhone.  If Apple were an NBA franchise, they would've been told that Blackberry owns that market, just as the Bucks get told that the Bulls own Chicago.

Part of life is concerning yourself with things you can control, and to that measure the Bucks have tried.  They're allowed to promote themselves in Wisconsin, and they have.  They're allowed to use Bill Clinton's presence at Nets games to get more New York media to come, and they have.  They're allowed to lobby the League for spots on All-Star Saturday Night, and they have, successfully.  (Look for Jabari to be a Slam Dunk Contest participant this season.)

Bucks management has also turned a lot of Wisconsinites off.  They traffic in nepotism, with an owner's son now claiming the second-most powerful spot in management hierarchy, Senior Vice President.  He's 29 years-old.  They traffic in politics, with their tone and substance being approximately a left-wing counterbalance to the alt-right.  These are hurdles, especially in a state that values merit and shuns divisiveness.

Nepotism and politics can be overcome.  The San Francisco 49ers's CEO, Jed York, is the poster boy for nepotism.  The Los Angeles Kings play in a left-wing city, but are owned by a man who has a record of opposing what has become the left's most sacred issue, gay marriage.  Both teams have a large, passionate fanbase that the Bucks could envy.

The Bucks will get more attention in Milwaukee.  With a team this fun and with a star as charismatic as Giannis, it's bound to happen.