white and black: musings on race and the nba

generally speaking, ncaa basketball is very popular among white fans; the nba is more attractive to black fans than whites. while white men cheer for their alma maters– especially in the ncaa march madness. more people of color enjoy the nba. especially for inner city folks, the blacktop is part of the culture and focus on individual players skills is a topic for discussion.

the nba desperately wants to appeal to white america but hits a ceiling every year. while team identification strongly exists in the 28 local markets, the nba knows that personalizing their marketing around personalities has appeal for many. but there has been no national “poster boy” for white fans since the 80s.

in the 70s with the proliferation of black players, the nba has been seen as a “black sport.” there was a smaller percentage of white nba fans once the nba had more a majority black players.

then came larry bird in 1980. along with him entered one of my all time favorite players– magic johnson. nba marketing hit the jackpot and pitted these two players against one another. it didn’t matter that they played different positions and that the lakers and celtics only played each other twice a year (unless they both made the finals). for many, there was a racial element to one’s player allegiance.

the magic-bird rivalry renewed national viewership in the nba. add a new marketing savvy commissioner named david stern in 1984 and further growth was to had. in same year, michael jordan entered the nba. the association has never been the same. with the dynamic of the players union growing stronger, salaries climbed too. the highest salary this year among the 513 players was $45.7 million; median was $3.5 mil. in 1984, magic was the highest paid player at $2.5 mil; rookie jordan was signed for $550,000. in 1996, jordan had the highest contract at $30.1 mil. the nba had matured in its capitalist being and has not looked back. the salary cap began in 1984 at $8.5 mil; today it is $101.8 mil

money drives the nba’s various interests.

since bird, the nba has tried it’s hardest to market the best white players in hope that there would be mass appeal not unlike jordan. since bird retired, only foreign born white players dirk nowitzki and steve nash have been multiple year all starts. neither had market appeal outside their home cities and hardcore nba fans.

this year, luka doncic, a fantastic 22 year old slovenian player had a banner all star year. the nba had many ads featuring their newest white golden boy. his team, the dallas mavericks had a lot of national games.

contrast a fantastic black player named trae young on the atlanta hawks. trae has comparable all star stats with luka (at different positions– sound familiar?) but was not on any national ads. the hawks had one game on the national broadcast schedule.

the hawks just won the first game of the eastern conference finals last night. doncic and the mavericks were ousted in the first round.

it’s serendipitous for the nba that luka and trae were traded for one another on draft day! might we see more doncic vs young ads in the next season. bet on it. will it work to increase national attention? i doubt it

part of the difference between 1980s nba and 2020s nba is perception: the nba is “woke.” the association’s adoption of social justice issues– especially black lives matter– has distanced itself with a lot of white america. while i too side with being socially conscious in all things including sports. many people want to separate their entertainment from the cultural issues at large. but there is no going back now– it is all connected and one cannot imitate an ostrich with its head in the sand.

the other professional sports do not want to affect negatively their fan base and have kept a safe distance from social justice issues.

2021 is not 1984.

so, i will keep my eye on two topics i like to kibbitz on: the nba and social issues in the usa



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