The Conflict of the New NBA
There are two ways people become NBA fans: either through your following of a specific franchise, or through a particular player/players. Perhaps you’re a die-hard native of the town, a true born and bred follower; your fandom lies at the core of the NBA. You buy the season tickets no matter where the team is at; your support is intrinsically linked to your identity. Nowadays those supporters are few and far between. With the globalization of the league, there has come a new and more frequent fan: the player fan.
I’m not going to lie, as an Australian native I had no real way of becoming a franchise fan, so like many others before me I latched onto the talents of the players; namely one in particular: LeBron James. The dazzling point-forward’s passing, dunking and out of this world athleticism transfixed me; he encompassed everything I love about sport. His determination, humility, consistency and longevity are something to behold. He introduced me to a brand new world, one that would turn a casual following into a full-blown obsession.
My story isn’t too dissimilar to that of plenty other international pundits. Whether the player was LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, or a slew of others, it’s the aura and talent of the players that continues to draw new and excited fans. Therein lies an inherent dilemma for the league and its owners. Fans go to see the stars strut their stuff. People buy the jerseys of these players, with some rare exceptions to those who continue to pour their hard-earned into a team despite its future (here’s to you Knicks fans).
For franchise owners that’s where the tricky part begins. How do you sell tickets, nay sell hope to a fan-base with no future to latch onto? Is it really the owners who control the league or has that shifted towards the players? And if it is in fact the players, is there anything wrong with that? Players are now dictating where they want to go in free agency more than ever. The resting of players has become so prevalent that commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo to the team owners earlier this year, though that problem lies more with general managers and coaches than the players themselves (unless you’re LeBron James).
Another issue for owners is how do you retain your stars and keep drawing fans to the game? This is especially an issue for smaller-market teams like the Phoenix Suns who have desperately sought a superstar to join their roster for the last few years (note: they are seen to be a key player in the Kyrie Irving situation). LeBron’s worth to the Cavs franchise is so astronomical that James’ presence not only boosts revenue for the team but for the entire city of Cleveland. One way to ensure retention is enticing players with the lure of max money (see Blake Griffin and John Wall) though at the same time you still see the departure of those superstars despite the incentive (see Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward).
What does all this movement mean for the fan? Well NBA fans are a fickle bunch, heck they go out and burn jerseys to forsake their idols.
Though those jersey burners are more likely to be the franchise fans who feel so slighted by a player leaving their beloved organization. Alternatively, the player fan is more likely to lay their allegiance wherever the player moves. Just wait to see wherever LeBron goes, if he leaves the Cavs next year. That fan base (the Lakers seems to be the strongest rumour right now) is likely to expect a huge spike in attendance and jersey sales. The same happened with Kevin Durant when he joined the Warriors and the same is likely to happen for OKC with Paul George and Houston with Chris Paul. Though those teams already have the presence of an established superstar. It’s a star-driven league and that’s always going to be the case no matter what sport it is (see Neymar’s recent move to PSG). The challenge is for owners and franchises to create a culture that has the allure for said stars. As for the fan, well it sucks being a franchise fan sometimes, but for the player fan life is always fresh and exciting. You could call them bandwagon fans if you’d like but their passion for the game remains as strong as anyone else’s.
For me, my allegiance no longer lies with the fate of The King, rather I’ve turned my fandom toward a franchise. For the record it's much easier being a player/bandwagon fan, especially if you follow the Brooklyn Nets.