Has the NBA Finally Recognized the Problem? Commissioner Announces No on-Court Activism Next Season

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

 

In a decision that should have been made pre-season, you have to wonder if even better-late-than-never rings true.

It has been with no lack of amazement that this summer, we have watched two primary and intertwined factors driving the stories with the professional athletics leagues. In most cases, there has been both an increase in social activism and awareness displayed in the playing arenas and there has been a dramatic decrease in fan interest. While players have been boldly proclaiming their social stances, management may be coming to a realization this has been a poor decision.

Despite firm words and continued activity from the players, coaches, and even broadcasters, it may have finally started to dawn on the executives that they are facing a self-created problem. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in a recent interview, has declared that next season, the social messaging that inundated the league will not be as prevalent.

To a sport, it has been the ongoing storyline this summer that the expected heightened interest from the forcibly home-encamped fanbase has not materialized. The ratings for baseball, hockey, and basketball have been down when those leagues resumed play a few months ago, and even the NFL has been perplexed that its regular schedule has been met with diminished fan interest. And yet, despite the glaring evidence of fan flight, the leagues have all maintained their posturing on social issues.

It appears that a dawning may have finally been realized. This past August, as the NBA restarted its season, Adam Silver spoke with Sports Illustrated and the magazine was upbeat about the whole concept about a return to play, buoyantly declaring ‘’The NBA is humming along.’’ In their talk, Silver sounded like he was delivering an insistence that fans would accept the social gestures. 

I think our fans are able to separate words on the floor or messages on the players’ jerseys or the floor. Even to the extent that they don’t, I think they recognize that these are not simple times. Our players are not one-dimensional people, and they can both be deeply concerned about issues that our country faces and at the same time perform their craft at the highest level.

Well, instead of humming along, it appears the commissioner, and the league, were more likely whistling past the graveyard. The viewership was down initially when the league began to restart the season, and it continued to drop as the playoffs ensued, but then, as the NBA Finals got underway between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, the low ratings plunged. Despite having marquee player LeBron James playing for a huge market team for the championship, the NBA lost two-thirds of its audience.

This seems to have been enough to prompt the Commissioner to come around. In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols for NBA Countdown, Silver has stated that next season they will back away from the social signaling.

Nichols: The NBA has certainly been the most visible billion-dollar organization championing social justice and civil rights. As you noted in your press conference the other day, though, that has not been universally popular. How committed are you to being that going forward?

Adam Silver: We’re completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality and that’s been the case going back decades. It’s part of the DNA of this league. How it gets manifested is something we’re gonna have to sit down with the players and discuss for next season.

While trying to sound like a politician who wants it both ways — getting the fans back without angering his players — Silver does announce that they will curtail the on-camera messaging.

My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.

This is a realization that really should have been evident at the start. When the league undertook the process of a quarantined playing environment, having the players restricted to a number of hotels and playing arenas in the Orlando area, it was done at a great expense. It has been estimated that the ‘’bubble’’ created to restart the season cost the league at least $170 million, then you need to factor in the loss of ticket buyers and other lost revenues from normal play. 

The league needed to foster as much interest as possible to draw whatever recovered losses it could. Instead, they clearly drove people away, compounding their problems. The question now is, just how lasting is this damage?