The tides are shifting in the American sporting landscape. The NFL, NBA and MLB have always been the major powers in USA sports and that dynamic won’t be changing anytime soon. However, the order of dominance might very well be altering before our eyes and the money will surely follow.
Gazing into the brass tax right now, the NFL holds the cards in terms of cash and kitty to play with. Their current television deal for example enables them to bank $25 billion until the 2021-22 season, working out to approximately $5-6 billion per year. That dwarfs the 9-year, $24 billion deal the NBA struck back in 2014 which ends up pocketing Adam Silver and his organization a cool $2.6 billion per season. So why should the NFL be worried?
Firstly, those numbers are all relative when deveining up the costs. An NFL roster has to account for 53 registered footballers for a season, that’s after cutting an entire squad of preliminaries as well as looking after a huge backroom staff. With 32 franchises that $5 billion gets stretched quickly, an issue the 12-man rosters in the NBA don’t need to fret about whatsoever.
Then there is the global footprint factor, an issue NFL fans could care less about but an ace up the sleeve of the NBA nonetheless. Throughout Europe, Australia, South America and Asia, names like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and all the stars past and present hold a significant amount of currency. That international element was a big player as to the bumper new television deal, ensuring trips to China in pre-season would now be a regular occurrence.
The NFL is a spectacular sport that will remain a social and commercial powerhouse for generations to come. But the NBA is closing in because for many reasons it is already a more lucrative product than football. Here are 15 of them.
Deride Rio 2016 all you want, but the Olympics attract tens of millions of Americans watching the games while the NFL and NBA are experiencing their downtime. That overlooks the hundreds of millions tuning in around the globe, even if it is just to witness Usain Bolt run 100 metres for 9.8 seconds of glory. Men’s basketball has been a feature since 1992 where The Dream Team became a phrase known around the globe, transcending USA basketball to make the sport fun again. Not only is it a great joy to see the likes of Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony and Draymond Green suit up together, but they’re being pushed! Serbia and Australia have given the US some serious contests and the sport is healthier for it. Some strange sports have been given the green light at the games like rugby sevens and golf, but surely the NFL doesn’t have a future showcasing it’s wears for the major event. The off-season contests help the NBA remain front of mind while the NFL fans need to go searching for their taste.
14 Interest From South America
Tapping into a culture that already has close to a hundred years of animosity and rivalry is a priceless asset to acquire. TNT’s David Aldridge is enjoying his downtime from the NBA to be out on assignment in Rio and so far the veteran analyst loves what he sees. One particular fixture led to the conclusion for Aldridge that “crystallized what has been clear throughout this Olympic tournament: basketball is the world’s game.” The derby between Brazil and Argentina, two nations that almost engulf the region by taking up nearly two thirds of it, had Rio at a stand still. Not only does the South American Championship also allow the continent to battle for supremacy on their own patch of turf each year, but the growing interest in the sport translates through seeing popular NBA figures come home to represent their country. The likes of Manu Ginobili for Argentina and Leandro Barbosa for Brazil are showcasing their skills and providing the platform for the next generation to make their mark.
13 Canadian Footprint
Actually incorporating a Canadian franchise into an American league makes a huge difference. The NFL’s attitude could not be more stark, treating the Canadian Football League like a feeder competition where players go to see out their careers or wait in limbo until a roster is in injury crisis. Existing since 1958, the professional league maintains nine clubs and tries its best to generate as much hype and excitement from locals as possible, let alone from those in the US. The Toronto Raptors, however, are a powerhouse franchise in the Eastern Conference and were valued in January this year by Forbes to be worth a cool $980 million. Yet to win a championship, the Raptors rank incredibly well for revenue generated and operating income with a 34% annualized change. With superstars like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in their pocket, the friendly neighbors from up north have every reason to follow their team’s fortunes in the NBA than they would supporting a sub-par competition that is there just as an insurance policy for the NFL.
12 NBA’s Fairytale Team
If the city of Cleveland was a microcosm for the battle of hearts and minds between the NFL and NBA, then the latter won out. The Cavaliers inaugural championship this year broke the curse and generations of frustration and humiliation. As was illustrated so poignantly by ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, the heartache of witnessing the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers fall short of expectation season after season wore down the area and adding insult to injury with the Cuyahoga River literally catching fire in 1969 made Cleveland a national laughing stock. For that narrative to be turned on its head thanks to the Cavaliers in the NBA with a returning hero in LeBron James, that battle is won by basketball. Millions lined the streets to soak in the moment as the liquor flowed and tears were shed. When has an underdog story enveloped like that with the NFL, at least in modern history? The Browns sadly remain a basketcase as football waits to see its own fairytale to be proud of.
11 Interest From Australia
Down Under is experiencing something of a golden generation of NBA grade basketball stars. From the number one pick in the 2016 Draft Ben Simmons to Matthew Dellavedova who recently won the NBA Championship with the Cavs, the Aussies are developing an impressive list. The Boomers 98-88 loss in Rio still left the winning Dream Team crying foul about overtly physical tactics, but Australia have serious players and enforcers to call upon like Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes and Patty Mills, the latter racking up 30 points against the USA. All of these individuals coming up together at the same time is translating into news headlines and television viewership in Australia as they piggyback on the reformation of the local National Basketball League coming back in vogue. While extended EPSN coverage is helping the NFL grow in Australia, it won’t ever catch up to basketball while there is such a strong domestic presence.
10 More Accessible Sport
Shooting hoops outside the garage, around the backcourts or schools is a national pastime. The ability for kids and adults of all shapes and sizes to bounce the ball around and pretend to be LeBron, Kobe or MJ for a few moments is an easily accessible exercise to engage in, football however can be a difficult dilemma. For one person alone, the helmet and padding is a major expense unless it’s a friendlier environment around a school or park where the contact is not a factor. Street basketball looks a healthier prospect than throwing around a pigskin when you consider how big an industry it has developed into. Since films like White Men Can’t Jump burst onto the scene in the 1990s, playing the game on a local level looks fun again. Even the legend himself Shaquille O’Neal appeared in Florida for a street game between school kids and local law enforcement, demonstrating how basketball can bring the communities together.
9 Interest From Europe
The NFL has a foothold in London but that is where their jurisdiction begins and ends in Europe, even if England isn't on the EU’s Christmas list these days post Brexit. There is an upturn across the continent when the Super Bowl is screening, yet that event is often an anomaly and doesn’t reflect on general NFL interest overall as a sport, only the appeal of the isolated event. The NBA and basketball however have a rich breeding ground of players, sponsors and supporters who avidly follow the sport. Not only do major soccer clubs like FC Barcelona, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and Real Madrid have basketball franchises in their name, but the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is expanding and was described in 2015 as being in “rude health” 15 years into existence. The growing interest in Europe has a spill over effect into the NBA with viewership and the ties that evolve with player transfers makes the relationship a long-term proposition.
8 Less Vitriol, More Enjoyment
Perhaps this is as much an anecdotal reason than a pure hardline fact, but there is less animosity and tribalism in the NBA than there is in the NFL. That isn’t to say that parochialism is a negative, the ferocity of football fans adds another dimension to the game that the NBA rarely matches. However, that passion in football can spill over to show an uglier side of sport that translates poorly into other markets and makes it a less appetizing product. The NBA is usually free from that stigma, aside from a few tasty Detroit Pistons or Boston Celtics clashes. Even the inner-city derbies between the Knicks and Nets or Clippers and Lakers are quite cordial affairs. Fans from both sides of the fence are able to banter and enjoy the spectacle. It is as much a reflection of the manner in which the games are played, with one fighting tooth and nail for every inch while the other is an expression of ability and flair. Both have their merit, but one makes for a more saleable package to market.
7 Asian Tours
Soccer got in on this gravy train and jumped the gun on their competitors years before it was the trendy thing to do – such is their hipster way. Not only have they got one of the wealthiest sports in the world and are now able to attract the biggest stars off the back of a booming economy, but now global franchises like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and a host of other clubs are making Asia their number one priority for pre and post season tours to maximize their bottom line.
The NBA franchises are tapping into their commercial viability on the continent and this was no more evident than when the Miami Heat trekked throughout China in 2012 with stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bad Boy Dennis Rodman’s shocking friendship with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un set the cat among the pigeons figuratively speaking, yet behind all the punchlines and jokes, it illustrated how powerful the NBA and the sport of basketball can be in the fastest growing region on the planet, a fact that translates to big dollars.
6 Higher Average Salaries
Why does it still feel as though Cuba Gooding Jr. keeps asking Tom Cruise to show him the money, even two decades after Jerry McGuire? Prepare to bring out the world’s smallest violin for NFL stars arguing for a pay rise because no one is empathizing with that pain. But the new discrepancy between what an NBA and NFL athlete is earning is now quite remarkable, with the National Basketball Association passing on a big chunk of the profits to their stars. Looking ahead to the 2016/17 season for both sports, an NBA player can expect to make on average $5.8 million over a $94 million salary cap. Unless you are in the elite bracket of footballers like a star quarterback or defensive end, then a player with 4-6 years experience will average a salary of $760,000 in 2016 scaling up to $985,000 if they manage to hold their body and form in shape until the 10+ years mark. For a brutal sport that usually doesn’t allow the type of lifespan enjoyed by a Tim Duncan, that achievement should come with more zeroes attached, but it doesn’t.
5 More Action In The Game
Looking into the cold hard facts of the case, there is simply more action taking place in any given NBA game than frankly multiple football games strung together. This overlooks the tactical complexity and beauty of football, but to a mere impartial viewer with no context other than what is evident on face value, that matters. A study by Zachary Seward in 2013 discovered that an average NFL game runs for 3 hours and 12 minutes with 100 commercials and 11 minutes of football where the game is in play. That stop-start nature confuses international audiences and frustrates even a lot of domestic fans to boot. The NBA has their issues too, particularly with needless timeouts that are used for cynical time wasting tactics. Yet their four quarters fly by almost an hour quicker following a flurry of dunks, 3-pointers and skillful passing maneuvers that makes it the box office product it is today.
4 Commercial Time At A Premium
A Wall Street Journal study back in 2013 systematically broke down the commercial time of the five major sports in America, periodically updating it where necessary. Of the five sports – football, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer, football spent 47% of the time on average showing commercials compared to 29% for basketball. More ads means more dollars right? After all, the NFL is sitting on a fatter television deal than the NBA. Yet fewer commercials means the ones they do run come at a premium. Broadcasting a 30-second bit during Game 5 of the Finals for example faces more competition. The Super Bowl changes the dynamic, but doesn’t alter the scenario over the regular season. More commercial space means less room for driving up the price and puts the NBA in a healthy position to maximize their 8% more of on court action over the NFL.
3 Greater Scope For Endorsements
2016 saw another annual rise in athletic endorsements. With more money flowing through the coffers via television and corporate deals, being a professional is now more lucrative than it ever was. Of the top 30 paid performers through endorsement earnings alone in that year, not calculating their salaries from their franchises, ten NBA players made that list to the NFL’s four. They are figures known better globally, have a stronger presence and hit the idea of marketability out of the park. A late 30s-something quarterback is a huge asset on American shores but try selling a pair of Nike sneakers to kids in Indonesia and there is a whole database of ballers in the NBA who can get the product moving off the shelf. In pure dollars and cents, selling basketball gear like shoes and shirts is a more lucrative exercise than footballing gear.
2 Better Characters
The NFL has some characters that make a serious splash in pop culture, from the outrageous to the crazy and downright unusual. Think of Rob Gronkowski, Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel, Russell Wilson, Ndamukong Suh, Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr., Adrian Peterson, Adam Jones – a collection of the weird and wonderful on display for all to see. But outside touchdown celebrations, social media posts, commercials and behind-the-scenes videos, it is difficult to ascertain the personality of these characters. The NBA offers a far more raw canvas of emotions that aren’t hidden behind a wall of padding and a helmet. The tears that flowed with LeBron James after Game 7, his death stare to Steph Curry during that infamous block, the engagement with the bench and the intimacy that brings – as a viewer we are able to access a more human experience through the NBA and simply put, that helps to instigate many of the other factors that influence its wealth and popularity. Huge egos are across the board in American sports, but they’re on display in all their glory far more often in the NBA.
1 Superior Superstar Factor
The NFL simply cannot compete for the marketability of a Michael Jordan, despite all their financial muscle and world-class athletes that push themselves to remarkable feats. The 1990s are remembered for so many good things, from grunge music to Seinfeld and MJ shooting and dunking his way to NBA superstardom in Chicago. Children all across the world had posters of Jordan on their wall, even if basketball wasn’t their sport and they had no interest or local reference point for what a Chicago Bull even was. In today’s game the likes of Steph Curry and LeBron James are riding the crest of the wave started by MJ to be on billboards, commercials and even feature films of their own to illustrate how easily now an NBA athlete can cut through pop culture and become an icon. Tom Brady and Cam Newton do quite well for themselves, but outside the United States, you would do well to find people that would recognize them. Popularity stakes, much like in they are in High School, are difficult to rationalize, but they do matter. This superior superstar factor is the top reason why the NBA is more lucrative than the NFL.