Friday, 13 September 2019 18:56

'MATTer of Opinion' Sports Column: NBA overtaking the NFL in popularity

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Professional sports are comparable to any other type of entertainment.

They're about providing a product the audience wants and being better than competitors. They're also about being adaptable and establishing a brand in a changing world. Professional sports need to continually develop ways to retain fans' attention. By these standards, there's increasing evidence that the NBA has surpassed the NFL in popularity.

Ever since the 1980s, the NBA has been undergoing a transformation by becoming a "player's league" that directs interest toward competition between the league's superstars. This has shifted the NBA's focal point from its teams to the player's brand.

The free agency offseason of football and basketball seem to be dominated by the NBA. NFL players tend to remain on their current team while the NBA drama of where a player will sign keeps fans engaged year-round. 

The stars in the league have more leverage than ever, allowing them to switch teams upon request. Other leagues have this feature, but NBA players, more often than not, see their requests granted. Meanwhile, the NFL hasn't done much recently to enhance its identity. While the league understandably is giving attention to player safety, it's failing to react to the declining interest.

The NBA appeals to a larger overall audience than the NFL, especially with younger fans; the group every form of entertainment is trying to pursue. Since they don't wear helmets, basketball players' faces are more recognizable, and their raw emotions and expressions are there for all to see.

Additionally, there are fewer players on an NBA team roster (15) than on an NFL roster (53). Off the court, most NBA players are flashier dressers than NFL players — with the exception of Cam Newton — with a focus on their game-day "street clothes" outfits. As a result, NBA players have become fashion icons, which has proven to be a strong connection with younger fans.

Around the globe, basketball is clearly more popular than football. The NFL has made strides to expand the game globally by scheduling games in England and Mexico, but as of 2017, the NFL had the lowest number of international players among professional sports league at a mere 2.6 percent.

Players in the NBA come from countries all around the world. In the 2018-19 season, there were 108 international players who made up 24 percent of team rosters, coming from a record-tying 42 countries. The percentage of foreign players in the league reached an all-time high in 2016 at 25.1 percent.

Foreign players continue to take the league by storm with promising young international talent such as the Mavericks' Luke Doncic, the 76ers' Joel Embiid and DeAndre Ayton of the Suns. This influx of foreign talent has been instrumental in basketball's growth and doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

When it comes to the all-important television viewership statistics, the two sports aren't comparable.

Most NFL games are played on Sunday, and it's only a 16-game season, followed by single-elimination playoff rounds. The NBA, on the other hand, has games every night with an 82-game, six-month season that concludes with playoff rounds that are played as a best-of-seven series.

While looking at the championship games, this past NFL championship game viewership has been declining recently. This past Super Bowl had 103.5 million watchers. Still a very big number but down from 111.3 million in the 2017-18 season.

Given that the NBA Finals has at least four games, the numbers are significantly lower than the Super Bowl. However, the 2017 NBA Finals were the most-watched since 1998 — when a guy named Michael Jordan was still in the league — with 20.4 million viewers per game. In addition, trends in game attendance do lean toward the NBA. The NFL has experienced an eight percent decline in attendance since the 2016 season. In 2018, 17.1 million people attended NFL games — the lowest since 2015.

Meanwhile, the NBA set an all-time regular season attendance record in 2018-19 for the fourth consecutive season with total attendance at close to 22 million. For the fifth year in a row, the league set a record for sold-out games (760), for a record-setting second straight year, games played to 95 percent capacity in arenas.

To the average sports fan, the NFL might seem to be the dominant league, but by many measures, the NBA is overtaking the NFL in popularity.

Today's youth are embracing basketball with endorsed signature player shoes, the ability to play in your driveway and interaction of players with fans on social media.

While the fan base for football will always be there, data and other evidence prove the NBA is on the rise with no decline in sight for the foreseeable future.


Matt Harrelson is the co-host of Good Morning Sandhills, lead anchor for Live at 5 and the host of The RO Sports Show, the ROSS Raider Wrap Up and ROSS Racin'.

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