David Stern part 2 : NBA popularity

The Party claimed, for example, that today 40 per cent of adult proles were literate: before the Revolution, it was said, the number had only been 15 per cent. The Party claimed that the infant mortality rate was now only 160 per thousand, whereas before the Revolution it had been 300 — and so it went on. It was like a single equation with two unknowns. It might very well be that literally every word in the history books, even the things that one accepted without question, was pure fantasy.
Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.

George Orwell, 1984

It is 1979 and Buss is about to buy the Los Angeles Lakers and turn them into a dynastic franchise in a league that seemed at the time to be circling the drain. 

Review of “Winning Time” on Defector by Israel Daramola

“The NBA was circling the drain in 1979,” says Defector in a piece published on March 8, 2022. I like the website and its voice. The fact that this throwaway line appears unquestioned on a site that is usually skeptical of the company line on all things is a good indicator of the popular understanding of the pre-Stern NBA. The false history goes deeper than the “finals on tape delay” stuff that we went through in Part One. One of the reasons Stern’s crimes are so gleefully applauded across the spectrum of commentators is that “we all know” that the NBA was in trouble before he got there. What kind of trouble? It wasn’t popular, it was “too Black” for mainstream America, there were drug stories you see…

I found a completely harmless blog purporting to be a concise history of American sports that synthesizes the conventional wisdom:

In the 1970s, professional basketball dipped in popularity.
With two rival leagues (NBA and ABA) diluting the talent, a somewhat selfish “me-first” attitude pervasive, and widespread perceptions of drug use among players, the game was at a point where even championship finals games during weekday nights were shown only on a delayed broadcast.
Three players (along with commissioner David Stern) deserve much credit for bringing the game back to popularity and making professional basketball a major sport alongside baseball and football in the American sporting pantheon.

Sport History by Dr Bob Epling

Dr. Bob is playing the hits here. Tape delay factoid. The selfish stuff is barely coded “too Black.” The three players of course are Bird, Magic, Jordan.

This is all wrong.

The NBA was not dipping in popularity in the 1970s

What are concrete negative outcomes that “lack of NBA popularity” might have created?

  1. Professional basketball might cease to be viable and there would be no way to watch it.
  2. The NBA as an entity could collapse and the teams in which its fans had built up so much time and identity rooting for would be gone.

The existence at all of the ABA is a good clue that (1) was never an issue and after the ABA/NBA merger in 1976 it was impossible for (2) to happen. The NBA was a successful monopoly with generational brand equity that had just defended and augmented its massive “moat” against any possible competitor. Anyone who would seriously argue the existential risk for the NBA in the late 70s is deeply wrong. Let’s find some objective evidence about the fine points.

Here’s a Gallup Poll page with some historical data. “Favorite sport is basketball” is at 9% in 1960, 10% in 1970, 9% in 1981. Nothing huge, although this doesn’t distinguish between pro basketball and college basketball (which continually slightly outpolls pro basketball as a favorite sport!)

Delightfully boring.

The above is a wire service clipping from Gallup himself talking about this 1981 sports poll. In this one they actually list the “favorite sport to watch” number for basketball as having gone up from 8% in 1972 to 9% in 1981. More importantly this article gives about 200 words of color to the findings. Football’s rapid rise at the expense of baseball is noted. Here’s the one section about basketball:

The distribution of basketball fans is remarkably even, with across-the-board appeal among different viewer groups. However, it is slightly more popular among women, blacks and persons living in the South. 

Viewers say Football is No. 1 Sport by George Gallup, The Indianapolis Star, Feb 12, 1981

The previous Gallup sports poll was 1972, so this one was perfectly poised to capture any massive dip in NBA popularity in the 1970s. Note that basketball is called part of the “big three” without any qualifications. In an article that has room for the boring observation that “baseball is slightly less popular in the south” you would think that any serious shift in basketball would be newsworthy. But there is nothing in either the numbers or the words.

February 9, 1978

This above clipping is too good, you have to read it all. Writing for the wires from Chicago in 1978, Joe Lapointe delivers fact after fact and quote after quote about how well the NBA is doing. Among them:

  • The TV situation is considered quite good! No mention of tape delay as a problem. The fact that it’s on network at all is rightly considered a triumph. Hockey isn’t on US network TV at all.
  • NBA attendance is up, averaging over 10,000 per game nationwide.
  • A “Harris Poll” reports 42% of the country “follows basketball” making it clearly one of America’s top three sports. (This Harris Poll doesn’t break out pro vs college but here is a Washington Post report from 1981 about a newer Harris Poll that does: “Fifty-two percent reported following basketball, with equal numbers, 40 percent, preferring the pros rather than college games and vice versa.”)

This is the league that is “circling the drain” and “dipping in popularity”? Remember we are only one year away from Stern’s ascendancy to marketing chief. He inherited a league and a property that was doing great.

The part about race is worth pulling out:

Once there was fear that pro basketball, if dominated by black players, would be shunned, by white ticket buyers. The fear was unfounded.
‘The basketball teams of 1978 are superior to the teams of 1968. ‘A lot has to do with the innovative approach of the black athlete from the playground,’ says Pat Williams, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the Stern ret-con myth, modern sages like to stroke their chins and say some version of “well you see people were racist Back Then and the game got too Black too quick, and it took Stern’s rule-bending elevation of Jordan at all costs to sanitize the Black game for white audiences.” Absolute nonsense. The Black urban migrations of the mid-20th-century created new basketball-playing populations that sent amazing new talents to the pros and people loved it. The Heaven is a Playground generation was delivering new Black city players while the old rural mostly-white high school college Hoosiers pipelines were still intact as well. (How well these talent funnels are still functioning today and how much Stern is to blame for their eventual collapse is the subject for another later post.)

This is the more accurate summary of the era: The ABA recognized a surplus of talent and did their best to deliver more pro basketball than ever before. When the NBA absorbed the ABA the nation lost a few total franchises but overall the pro basketball world was bigger, better, blacker and more popular in 1978 than it was just ten years earlier.

How much did white audiences take to the NBA in the late 1970s? The Denver Nuggets, in their first post-merger year, lead the NBA in attendance in 1977, averaging 17,578 per game. That number was actually higher than the listed capacity of the arena. (Source: St Joseph News-Press, June 19, 1977.) There are similar stories from other majority-white cities all over the country. (Denver was 75% white in 1970 and 9% Black.)

But the NBA was much less profitable than today

This is the heart of it. With our current lens we can’t distinguish between popularity and profitability and that colors our attempt to understand the past. It’s very hard to understand from a 2022 vantage point, but the NBA (like other sports) was very popular and not very profitable.

This is the quote that unlocked the whole thing for me:

“Fame is what works around these parts,” Victor Watson continued. “Lots of guys who make Forbes magazine get snubbed by every snotty maitre d’ in town. If you want to be where it’s at you have two choices: buy a sports franchise, which is the second crappiest business in the world, or get into movies, which is the most crappy. I discovered a third way, and married a famous movie star.

The Secrets of Harry Bright, by Joseph Wambaugh (1985)

This is fictional speech by a fictional character in a work of fiction. But it stopped me cold because it could never be written today. Wambaugh is an ex-LAPD officer who made his bones with the extremely realistic bestseller The New Centurions (1971) about life in the LAPD. Thereafter he wrote LA-centered crime thrillers. He was connected to Hollywood and wrote true crime as well as fiction. Reading a few of his other works and his life story I believe there is a one hundred percent chance he wanted the above speech to be seen as realistic. It was possibly something he’d even heard himself. The scene is a world-wise west-LA businessman telling an equally jaded ex-cop PI the “truth.”

What was true in 1985 would never be seen as true today. Owning a sports team in the early 80s was, like movies, still a boom/bust box-office business. You put together a show and hoped you could sell enough tickets to cover your costs. The top line was “all treble.” What was changing by the mid-80s was all the additional “bass note” revenue streams that would flow in both movies and sports. For movies it was cable as well as home video. All of a sudden you didn’t just live and die on that yearlong run in theaters, there was a way to keep selling the same property over and over again. For sports, it wasn’t just tickets and hot dogs on the night of the game. Cable contracts from regional sports nets meant steady revenue. Licensing money started to grow.

Everything was shifting around 1984. The Ringer recently had a long excellent piece about the dynamics of franchise moves.

As journalists Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since roughly 1984, when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, team owners across the country have worked systematically to “supplement profits by extorting money from their hometowns,” usually “under threat of moving.” 

What Do Cities Lose When They Lose Pro Sports by Dan Moore, The Ringer, April 4 2022

1984 was when owners began to turn the crank on the cities and create new revenue streams out of tax breaks and sweetheart stadium deals.

Before 1984 there were plenty of rich, famous owners but they were mostly impresario types like Al Davis. They knew how to cut costs and put on a show. Some were patrician types running the team as essentially a public utility. The pure money guys, the asset allocators, the masters of real estate leverage… These have been a recent development. Billionaires like John Henry, Marc Lasry, Joe Lacob, and Stan Kroenke are all buying into a business with multiple streams of revenue that is assuredly not “crappy.”

Look at some of the actual numbers for clues. Buried in the 1978 article is the figure “NBA teams earn $600,000 per year from television.” If you plug that figure into an inflation calculator you get around $2.6 million in present dollars. Here’s an article about the current TV deal signed in 2017: The league-wide yearly pot is $2.67 billion meaning each team is getting $85 million just from the big deal. Of course teams also have their regional cable deals. The article is lamenting the plight of the Grizzlies for having a league-worst $9 million local deal while the Lakers local deal is $149 million. Thus the 2017 apples-to-apples payout comparison to 1978 is a 40X rise in real inflation adjusted revenue for the network deal and an infinite rise in local money, hitting hundreds of millions in some cases.

That Nuggets article I quoted? The actual headline is “Nuggets Shine in Attendance But There’s Still No Gold In Denver.” Despite their attendance the franchise was treading water trying to meet the NBA’s unreasonable ABA merger payout and unwilling to raise ticket prices. There was no local cable deal for ballast. The current wave of metric-driven financialization of sports (and everything else for that matter) had not hit. Popularity and money just didn’t correspond.

Cable deals and tax extortion were two huge revenue sources that were at an inflection point when Stern took over completely in 1984. (I suspect licensed apparel has undergone similar double digit real growth but I can’t find the numbers yet.) He was the beneficiary of taking over a very popular league that soon would become extremely profitable for its owners.

What about the drugs?

Wasn’t there a huge cocaine problem? Didn’t David Stern solve all that? Well there were a few anonymously sourced articles about pervasive cocaine use and Stern did institute a career-ending “death penalty” policy for anyone with a drug offense. Given what we now know about the legacy of the 80s war on drugs, I’m not sure that a “Black guys are doing coke” panic and disproportionate enforcement response is worth celebrating. Any drug problem certainly wasn’t translating into any of the popularity metrics we looked at above.

And the salary cap?

The salary cap, of course, was purely to save the owners from “themselves” and give a legal framework for collusion. It was sold to the fans as a way to increase competitiveness.

I had to laugh reading the article “Rookie Commissioner Says The NBA Healthier Than Ever” (by John Lowe, Knight-Ridder, January 2, 1984)

This is all a quote from Stern

Here is the list of teams that won an NBA title in the dark ages of the 1970s: Bucks, Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, Warriors, Blazers, Bullets (!), Sonics. 8 different teams in 10 years. Here is a list of title teams from the Stern years 1984-2010. In 26 years: Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat. Not until Stern’s twilight in 2011 would an eighth different team, the Mavericks, win a title. The Stern cap and era was great for owner profitability but it was a terrible time to be a fan for a random franchise outside the big names.

The past is a foreign country. They only have three television channels, so people watch a lot less sports. Fans have no media coverage to consume other than their local newspapers and the radio play-by-play. Their NBA owners make much less money (yes even after we use the foreign exchange translator known as inflation.) Nevertheless its fans seem happy. 40% of the country is a “follower,” getting from it a few hours of low-cost entertainment. Pro basketball creates a living for a few and a modest consumer surplus for millions. It is a semi-private institution with all that implies, and no more in danger of failure than any other broadly popular institution enjoyed by so many. Hamburger stands, say, or privately operated campgrounds. Or any of the other major pro sports leagues, with whom it shares the same broad characteristics of fandom, coverage and revenue.

From the past our future is equally foreign. Fans can watch any game they want almost anywhere, and when not watching games there are thousands of hours of coverage and basketball-related opinion to consume. But it costs hundreds of dollars per month to have access to this fount. States and cities run deficits while diverting hundreds of millions of dollars to NBA owners, who have grown rich beyond a level ever dreamed of. For a quarter century all but a few privileged teams were held back from winning a championship. As a possible defense response a plurality of fans no longer face the pain of rooting for a particular team but simply say they follow the whole sport. The league’s greatest stars and coaches make obeisance to murderous foreign dictatorships in the name of billions of dollars of revenue. American participation in the league and basketball itself is at an all time low. The league is no more broadly popular than ever, and only 35% of the country calls itself a follower.

And what of the man who bridges the gap between these two? How responsible is he alone for the goods and ills that we live with now as NBA fans? We’ll get to that. But I hope you can see this pervasive idea that the past is a dark place on the precipice of disaster is clearly propaganda, fostered and fed by the successor regime, adopted and embellished by lazy writers over the last 40 years. So many are eager to take their place of worship in one of the most successful boss cults we’ve ever spawned. After all, the portal between our two lands is 1984.

Here’s another prophetic clip from the transition:

Press and Sun Bulletin, Binghampton NY, June 11, 1984

Surely we’ll never hear about anything like that ever again right?