The NBA's decline

Posted: Nov 30, 2004 12:00 AM

If you are tired of reading about the NBA brawl that broke out recently in Detroit, let me offer one bit of empirical data to confirm the increasingly common opinion that professional basketball in America is losing support.

 In August of this year, an InsiderAdvantage national survey asked respondents which professional spectator sport they most enjoyed watching. Football was by far the top choice, followed by baseball. Professional basketball was the first preference of only 14 percent of those surveyed. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

 To see the various television and movie stars who seem to appear during virtually any NBA broadcast, one would think that basketball would be a top-rated spectator sport. But it's likely that the real reason some of those stars flock to the game is that it is one of the few sports where spectators, particularly VIPs, can sit in close proximity to the area of play -- hence lots of photo ops and more publicity.

 For the rest of us, there must be a more compelling reason to attend a game. And, as has clearly been noted, the fan versus player fight that erupted between the "professionals" of the Indiana Pacers and paying, albeit unruly, "customers" who paid to watch their Detroit Pistons, offered less compulsion and more revulsion. And to add insult to injury, the Pacers' Ron Artest, who was almost immediately suspended from the league for the remainder of the year, appeared just days later on NBC's "Today Show" and babbled his way through an interview, which concluded with Artest holding up a new CD from an R&B group being carried on his TruWarier record label.

 To be fair, Artest obviously had no clue how to handle an interview from the likes of NBC's polite yet pointed Matt Lauer. He was, in fact, a sitting duck. Make that a duck painting a target on his own body.

 The gall of promoting a CD rather than answering tough but fair questions about his fight with Detroit fans suggested a raw ignorance to the seriousness of the matter. But therein may be the source of the public's dislike for the NBA.

 Soaring salaries, coupled with the impression (whether intended or not) that players merely tolerate fans, have long made the NBA the poster child for a world of professional sports out of control. Yes, it's trite and obvious, but there can be no denying the general resentment the average hardworking teacher, fireman, police officer, or any other working person for that matter, feels when they see adults earning unbelievable amounts of money for a sport that has seemingly lost its art and strategy in favor of one slam dunk after another.

 And there is another secret part of the NBA's demise among those who follow sports in America. The decision to allow players to enter the professional ranks straight out of high school has signaled to the nation that the league places little value in education. Is it any wonder the hapless Artest had nary a prayer of keeping up with the likes of Lauer? Perhaps the very concept that a highly paid professional would feel free to run into the stands to chase down some moron who threw a cup of beer at him is proof positive that many of today's players lack the training and maturity necessary to match their high salaries and star status.

 Obviously it would do every professional sports league some good to examine how the NFL turned its image around. Support for professional football was twice that of even baseball -- the "national pastime" -- in our survey. And by attending an NFL game, one can start to see why. Notice the extreme effort made by NFL teams to involve players in community programs. Fans are constantly reminded that the team and its players are supportive of charitable causes and community groups.

 And as for interest, the NBA has created a "parity" system that allows hope to spring eternal for virtually any team and a season that bores viewers by going on too long. One year's big loser can easily become the next year's champion. That's why the whole world will be watching the next Super Bowl played in Jacksonville, Fla., while attendees of the NBA finals will yawn their way through games held into the early summer, possibly donning bullet-proof vests and protective helmets.