Why the NBA Will Eventually Take Over the NFL (22 Min Read)
Updated: Feb 6
It’s always been odd watching basketball as a Canadian. Growing up in the suburb of Sherwood Park, Alberta, your parents taught you to support the Oilers. You reveled in the fact that Wayne Gretzky once called Edmonton home and you always talk about the glory days, whether you were alive to see them or not. You’ve experienced the decade of darkness, and the uprise of Connor McDavid. You would have probably grown up watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC, and especially as a boy, it was likely that you grew up fantasizing about being the next Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. You embraced the unbridled Canadian-ness that is hockey. It’s a game that we proudly identify as our own. Some rough and tough 60 minutes filled with athleticism, strength, poise, and ultimately finesse, as its performed on ice. A game where the tides can shift at any moment. A game rarely defined by eras of superteams. And a game often told to represent the grit we have as Canadians.
Canada’s population is 36.29 million as of June 19, 2018. The NHL currently has 985 active players in the NHL. Of those 985 players, 446 (45.3%) of them are Canadian. That’s one NHLer roughly per 80,000 people. To compare that to the United States population of 325.7 million and their currently 269 active players, they output one NHLer per 1.2 million people. I feel as though that difference illustrates just how crazy of a hockey nation Canada truly is. I usually wouldn’t have to explain this as one would find out for themselves after spending 5 minutes watching Canadian SportsCentre at anytime throughout the year. Even in the offseason, we dedicate full days and segments to speculation on hockey when there are still other sports being played. If I’m watching SportsCentre in late fall/early winter when all four major sports are on, I would be lucky to catch more than a one-minute recap on all of the basketball played that night, whereas each NHL game is recapped at length, taking up the majority of the broadcast. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand basic supply and demand. I understand viewership. But it is this engrained love and ride-or-die mentality for hockey that keeps our media complacent in covering other sports and our people from being able to support other leagues in our cities. Although there has been growth in basketball, the overriding hockey culture egregiously dominates all other sports in terms of popularity and coverage.
Now imagine trying to get your dad to watch a game in which contact during the motion of shooting results in a foul. “That’s a foul? He barely even touched him!” Believe me, the nuance hasn’t dawned on many other Canadians either. Asking a server to put on a Toronto Raptors game on in a bar with few TV’s while both the NBA and NHL playoffs are on is met with a similar reaction to me sucker punching an elderly woman. But since time is as sure as death, we continue to press on with our effervescent youth paving the way for our sports futures. And friends, that future is the NBA, whether you are Canadian or not. In the next section, I’m going to examine the most popular sports in North America and why they will eventually be overtaken by the NBA. When you’re on your death bed and the only league still experiencing growth is the NBA, you can finally say you were sorry for doubting me.
Sports are a fickle thing. Their popularity is often representative of the cultural period we sit in. Hockey is Canada’s sport, as we spend 6-8 months of our year under a block of snow. But for Americans, their sport of choice has been a journey. It has gone through a progression of sorts. In the early 1900’s, baseball was once the most popular sport, now known as their national pastime, stemming from the laid-back nature of a growing nation building from rural towns inward. But it’s no surprise that the NFL has dominated American culture for so long. The sport was indicative of the nation’s feelings at home and abroad. It fueled the aggression that America has come to be known for. They were a nation that would face challenges head on and would be willing to take a beating to impose their will on others. They were willing to fall harder to achieve a higher level of success. Football is a representation of the American dream and the fable of a meritocracy giving anyone the possibility of achievement. And although the NFL is still far and away the most popular league, their grip on that title is beginning to loosen. The following sections will speak towards why the NBA is beginning to rival the NFL, and what will inevitably flip the switch on America’s sporting preferences.
Overall, players who play in the NFL average a career length of about 3.3 years. The large majority of individuals are unable to sustain the size, strength, skill, and fortitude needed to put their bodies essentially through a car crash 1-2 times per week. Of the players who make pro-bowl selections, they average a longer career of 11.7 years. Whereas in the NBA, the average career length comes in at around 6 years and for all-stars, their careers can last up to more than 20 years.
Football is a sport known for its merciless hits, it’s daring acts of strength, and its concussions. And when you’re hit in the head consistently, your brain becomes bruised and damaged. It rattles around the inside of your skull and becomes twisted with irreversible consequences. CTE, otherwise known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a neurodegenerative brain disease that can be found in individuals who suffer from exposure to repeated head trauma. CTE involves the accumulation of the protein tau, which fills the brain like a venom. It can disable neuropathways, which can ultimately lead to the following symptoms:
suicidal thoughts and behavior
CTE is only something of recent discovery, and can only be diagnosed post-mortem, as the buildup of protein in the brain cannot be identified, at this point in time, while an individual is alive. A study published in July of 2017 in the medical journal JAMA showed that of 202 deceased former football players (a combination of high school, college, and professional players), 177 of these former players were diagnosed with CTE.
CTE was diagnosed in 110/111 former NFL players
CTE was diagnosed in 7/8 former CFL players
CTE was diagnosed in 9/14 former Semi-pro players
CTE was diagnosed in 48/53 former college players
CTE was diagnosed in 3/14 former high school players
CTE has driven many former players to suicide and contributed to unspeakable acts against others and themselves. Two former NFL players were both found dead by suicide with bullet holes in their chests. Why their chests you might ask? They had the self-awareness to know there was something wrong with themselves mentally, so they shot themselves in the chest to spare their own brains for autopsy. What an incredibly sad yet selfless act.
Now, undoubtedly, there is bias within this study, nor is it a representative sample of players who decide to take up the most dangerous game we know. Family members of the deceased participants likely submitted their brains to the study because of the clinical symptoms they observed and experienced throughout the lives of their loved ones, meaning there is a bias of entrants into the study (a higher likelihood they have CTE). The study also doesn’t compare any results to a control group, therefore rendering it impossible to scientifically use as an indicator for risk. But what the study does demonstrate is the irreversible and terrible consequences that can come from CTE. This study has just cracked the surface of what we know about head injuries in football, despite the NFL’s previous denial of its existence. It was only in 2016 when the NFL finally acknowledged that some form of connection exists between football and CTE. This study will forge a path that leads us to better player safety and player empowerment. It will give people the liberty of information to decide what sport is right for themselves or for their children.
These factors will therefore have a major influence on what sports parents will chose for their children if they go the route of athletics. These decisions will play a huge role in the growth or shrinkage of the sport as our science becomes more inscrutable and the public becomes more aware of the dangers. I know that when the day comes that I want kids myself, that I won’t be putting them in football unless the sport undergoes a drastic change in how safety is managed. That sentiment is shared with many of my friends and new parents. Although you would think this point would be the crux of my whole argument as towards why the NBA will overtake the NFL, and although it should be, it sadly is not.
Since our society is retroactive in our prevention of future tragedy, we indelibly wait until we have all of the necessary evidence to act. In the case of CTE and using it to scientifically point towards footballs contributions to the build-up of tau, we would need to begin a study that follows a control group and an experimental group throughout their whole lives, from birth until death. The average male life expectancy is 75 years in North America. If we wait until we have this study to definitively attribute CTE to participation in football, we will have wasted an opportunity to save countless lives and prevent the transformation of players into the CTE identity they are eventually consumed by.
Because this conclusive scientific evidence doesn’t exist and won’t exist for a considerable amount of time, the NFL will refute the impacts and continue their profit driven journey to sustain their hold atop the sports world in North America. Malcolm Gladwell said it best when speaking to the University of Pennsylvania on the burden of proof in our society and how our failure to act early usually ends up hurting us in the long run. He was speaking to students about Penn U’s former starting football captain who had hung himself, seemingly out of nowhere. The post-mortem diagnosis was CTE. Gladwell said “Is that enough proof for you? Is the death of someone you went to school with who was the captain of your football team enough evidence for you to walk away from the game?”
Now, as much as I love to listen to Tony Romo’s southern charm and Jim Nantz sultry voice talk about slant routes, there just isn’t enough time spent playing the game. Yes, the comradery is beautiful and the tradition of tailgating and making a day out of a game is fun, but for any fan who’s not partaking in those activities, a three hour and fifteen-minute game is a long time.
Three hours is a long time no matter what you’re doing, and with football, each game only averages around 11 minutes of actual playing (live action) time since the game clock will consistently run down, only stopping for a few situations throughout the game. 11/195 minutes are spent playing football. This is an advertisers’ paradise. They feast on your attention and time, as there is an overabundance of it. You are spending 6% of the game-slotted time watching football. The same could be said for baseball, with each game averaging around 18 minutes of live action play.
Whereas basketball and hockey are mobile, fluid sports. They require consistent effort and athletic ability. They require players to be multifaceted in their abilities; amazing hand-eye coordination, strength, agility, court/rink vision, and finesse. In no way am I downplaying the skill needed to enter any of these leagues. Nor am I the difficulty of the game. Quarterback is far and away the toughest position in sports, but even many quarterbacks don’t require the athleticism needed for other sports.
God knows that’s already difficult enough. What I am saying is that players like Bartolo Colon do not exist and thrive in a game like basketball or hockey. Prince Fielder doesn’t exist. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t exist. Aaron Gibson doesn’t exist. They demand too much endurance and speed. Players who start in basketball often play upwards of 35 minutes per game, and the same can be said for hockey, with starters putting in around 20 minutes per game. The more action, the better. And with American footballs 4-down rule, teams run the ball more than ever, shaving time off the clock, leaving less room for the stuff we crave for in football. More advertisements, less action, less excitement, less participation, and less growth.
Now I know what you’re thinking. The NBA has the same two teams playing in the finals for the previous four years. It’s predictable. It’s boring. It makes watching regular season games pointless. I would argue the exact opposite.
As the game of basketball continues to evolve and adapt to the growing population of people playing it, this only makes the NBA more interesting and exciting. The development of super teams has forced the league to consistently develop new strategies and reach new heights. The Houston Rockets and Mike D’Antoni developed a system of offense that saw forty three-point shots being jacked up per game, as math would dictate that is the formula for success. The Celtics have stocked up enough assets to trade for any player they want. The Lakers have gone on a trade frenzy to become contenders once again. The consistent year-in-and-year-out Warriors extravaganza has seen the development of a villain. Everyone wants to see them fall. Polarization makes people choose sides. This creates debates, trolling, memes, arguments and so much more. This is how this sport becomes embedded into our youth’s culture. This creates drama. Drama creates tension and excitement. Tension and excitement are what make any sport flourish. So much more sits beyond the bleachers. So much more is at stake these days. The game is at an all-time high in terms of excitement and fun.
The Politics of it All
A huge controversy that overshadowed much of the NFL’s storylines from last year was Colin Kaepernick, his decision to kneel during the national anthem, and the ensuing wave of support, condemnation, and reactions from players, owners, even the POTUS, and just about every media personality in the world. Recently, the decision came down from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stating that players are no longer allowed to kneel during the national anthem. To some, it comes as an unjust response to players enacting their right to freedom of speech. Exercising their ability to communicate the discrimination that many of these players have faced and will continue to face in their lives is extremely important.
These decisions continue to bear much of the media coverage in the offseason and come at the expense of the NFL’s ratings. What if I told you that it wasn’t the decision itself doesn’t even really matter, but instead was an indictment of the purgatory their players are held in? Many don’t know this, but the NBA already has such a policy. NBA players can’t kneel either. But what’s the difference? Why is one never spoken of while the main narrative of the other’s 2016-17 season revolved around it?
The reason this is never heard of in the media is because players in the NBA do not need to kneel to communicate their injustice. They don’t need to make a polarizing statement during the dearly beloved American national anthem because the NBA and its executive office have developed a culture of respect amongst the league and its players. They enable them to voice their opinions. The reason they can constrain players abilities to kneel without uproar or controversy comes from the mentality its players uphold. NBA players don’t feel wronged in the application of this policy because the NBA encourages its players to develop a public platform and support them publicly when they are challenged. The NBA's Commissioner, Adam Silver, outwardly speaks against discrimination and supports player empowerment instead of harbouring player control. NBA players know that they can always speak to the media directly about how they feel. They are encouraged to create social media platforms and to develop their own brands. They know that kneeling won’t achieve what their actions can.
The NFL enacts policies that treat kneeling as the problem, presupposing that compressing their players abilities to speak out will in turn improve their ad revenue and ratings. They should instead recognize it as a symptom of a larger problem within the NFL and football in general – respect. Sport owners overwhelmingly fall into the patriarchy. Its often old boys club with conservative beliefs and executions. There are two owners in the NFL that aren’t white, Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Buffalo Bills, and Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The average age of those owners? 70.1. The NBA suffers as well but has considerably more progressive owners that are actively involved in their franchise and in the tech world. Many will fall on the right side of history, although they too suffer from a lack of diversity in the executive office. The average age of these owners? 64.2.
The NBA has been extremely lucky to have LeBron James. There has never been a player more influential on inducing player empowerment than him. He’s a man that transcends his basketball role and impacts society, the league, and ultimately American culture. The NFL has no such player. As I will get into in a future section, the NFL has essentially no voice online or over social media, which greatly impacts their players perspective on their own freedom and the respect which they are afforded. Maybe this hypothetical player will come and rescue the NFL from the depths it currently resides in someday. We can all hope so. Last Sepetmber, LeBron was asked how he felt about the no-kneeling policy, to which he replied, “My voice is stronger than my knee.” That’s the difference between the NBA and the NFL. A league that respects its players will in turn also earn respect.
When Colin Kaepernick spoke out against injustice and was challenged, the NFL turned its back on him and teams surely blackballed him from joining a roster. Kaepernick is no Tom Brady, but he is better than Blake Bortles. I’m sure Kaep had a hand in that as well, but that’s irrelevant. When LeBron James spoke out against Donald Trump, stating that Trump “doesn’t give a f*** about people,” Laura Ingraham of Fox Sports told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” She was suggesting that he was worth nothing more than his basketball skills. That all he was capable of is entertaining us. That his opinion was irrelevant because he was an athlete. The league united to dispel the notion that discrimination would be tolerated within the NBA and that they are much more than basketball players. The league, its owners, coaches, and other players all came to LeBron’s side at that moment, instead of staying out of the political limelight. They doubled down because they believe in their players and their right to have a voice. They created the hashtag #MoreThanAnAthlete, which is now a part of LeBron’s brand.
Marketability & Culture
If you’re wondering why you always see basketball dominate social media more than any other sport, it’s because its athletes have taken over its various platforms. Similar to how the game of football is engrained into American culture of the past, basketball players are interjecting their perspective, style, personality and game into American culture of the future. Let’s walk through a few reasons as to why the NFL is faltering here:
They wear huge helmets that cover their face – players are less recognizable and therefore less likely to carry more personality and brand with their name. I know this is something that is obviously unavoidable given the nature of the sport, but the point stands regardless. OBJ is by far the most electric player in the NFL at the intersection of personality and skill type. Want to know how many followers he has? 3.69 million on Twitter and 10.7 million on Instagram. To put that into perspective, LeBron James currently has 38.7 million followers on Instagram and 41.8 million on Twitter (as of June 19). Yea sure, LeBron is the GOAT, so maybe not a fair comparison. But if I compare the GOAT of the NBA to the GOAT of the NFL… Tom Brady has 4.1 million followers on Instagram and doesn’t even have Twitter. To really make the NFL feel bad, Adrian Wojnarowski, an ESPN insider who usually drops information on NBA trade rumors, has 2.38 million followers on Twitter. That is more than 95% of NFL players.
The NFL will also never compare to the NBA in its cultural impact on fashion – what are the most famous shoes in the world? Air Jordans. Now, I ask you to name one player in the NFL who has a recognizable shoe. You can’t. That’s because they play a sport which requires cleats, making it essentially useless for bigger companies to sign players to big corporate deals. The sport is essentially only popular in America with Canada being such a small market, so they are unable to associate players to shoes while maintaining traffic, unlike soccer. This largely contributes to players marketability and their willingness to build their own brand. You will see Tom Brady or OBJ with shoes that are moderately successful, but they will likely rarely be seen wearing them. In the NBA, your shoes are an expression of your identity. Your shoes are a statement. Players in the NBA, especially younger players, have taken the opportunity to inject creativity into different shoes each game.
There is a whole sub-world of sneakerheads who have embraced the NBA which has contributed to the coolness of the league amongst younger fans. The NBA has a long list of players with extremely successful shoes:
Michael Jordan - Nike
LeBron James - Nike
Kobe Bryant - Nike
Steph Curry - Under Armour
James Harden - Adidas
Kyrie Irving - Nike
Kevin Durant Nike
Klay Thompson - Anta (huge international spectrum)
So, I repeat: A bigger impact on fashion results in a larger footprint on pop-culture and exposure to the broader public. This equals more of the public interacting with components of the sport, making them aware of various players even if they aren’t familiar with the game. That’s how you convert people into basketball fans.
These few points in turn will contribute to my next point, which is on branding. The biggest athlete to ever exist globally is Michael Jordan. Why? Branding. It wasn’t only his raw talent or his brash egotistical attitude that brought him to the forefront of our lives in the 90’s, it was those things combined with his creation of a brand. That iconic dunk will be forever etched into our brains through a simple logo design. Michael Jordan seized the opportunity to take himself beyond a basketball player and thrust himself into the realm of superstardom. He is now a billionaire and owns an NBA team himself, the Charlotte Hornets. You could be one of the most freakish athletes in the world, but if people are unable to see your personality, if they are unable to relate to you or idolize you, people will therefore care less.
Look at the number of explosive and insanely talented players in the NFL. Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, OBJ, etc. Yet these players outside of their sport often have no recognition and no voice. That is because they don’t have brands. I would wager most people know what LeBron James looks like, whereas unless you’re a dedicated football fan, I doubt you recognized that that Antonio Brown (Steelers RB) was the guy dancing alongside Drake in the God’s Plan music video. This ‘bigger than sports’ mentality is actually common in the NBA. There are a high number of players who possess eyes beyond the grandeur of their playing careers and look for business opportunities to further enhance their future once they’ve retired. An example of this is Kevin Durant and his agent Rich, who are always looking to be involved in the next big thing, whether its guest starring in an episode of Billions or investing in a start-up. KD is invested in a considerable number of budding businesses and has developed a unique YouTube channel that revolves around his life, his opinions, and his business ventures. His appetite is much bigger than his stomach, an important quality for someone trying to achieve something truly great.
LeBron James has said he also wants to own an NBA team someday, and even though the price tag of an NBA team in the next twenty years will likely skyrocket into the 1-2 billion dollar range as the sport continues to grow, I wouldn’t doubt James ability to get there.
Can you think of one NFL player who has built an empire of a brand that stands up to the many that exist in the NBA today? The closest someone has come is Tom Brady with his TB12 Method, which I would hardly call a success itself. As soon as people recognize that once games reach this magnitude and scale, it’s the people and the personality that drive the sport forward and not the sport in and of itself, they will understand why basketball is just more entertaining.
I want to be clear that I am not villainizing the sport of football. I am a big fan myself and have suffered the weight of being a Chargers fan for years. I loved watching Tom Brady be named the GOAT while pre-emptively releasing a Facebook documentary on his amazing accomplishments before he lost in the Super Bowl last year. I loved watching the Philly special come to fruition and all of the behind-the-scenes videos of how it took place. I love seeing Le'Veon Bell bowl over guys 30 lbs heavier than him. I love the sport. I am not a fan of how the NFL operates. They enact policies that make no sense, they treat their players terribly, and they refuse to face reality in many ways. They don't even attempt to create a facade that they care about more than their bottom line. They've made it clear what their goals are and where they stand. They fail to take responsibility for their actions and because of that have failed to develop a brand that will continue to stick with consumers. Unless the sport of football adapts to the growing demands of a more progressive, conscious, and safer audience base, I can't see the NFL being the boss forever. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but it surely is possible. Football is a sport designed for men in America. Basketball is a global sport that anyone can play.
When trying to forecast the future, you don't look towards what is currently happening and those in power. You look towards our youth, as they will inevitably and subconsciously decide what happens next. The youth want basketball, its as simple as that.