This year’s NBA playoffs are the most watched in cable history. The vast majority of viewers are white, with most of the players from humble beginnings and black. The players cannot match Oprah’s 7 million viewers a day. But every playoff game, depending on the network, gets 3 – 5 million TV viewers in the US alone. And according to Richard Buchanan, Executive VP and General Counsel of the NBA, the season started with 63 Million fans following them on social media sites, primarily Facebook and Twitter. By the playoffs, the figure increased to 100 million. Also like Oprah, the League’s international business has skyrocketed. The NBA expansion in China and India headline a roster of countries that now causes the NBA to have 15 international offices. Games are available in 46 languages. In China alone, the league has more than 140 employees and is currently negotiating multi-million dollar digital sponsorships and media rights agreements. In fact, the NBA has supporting facts for the conclusion that it is now the second most popular professional sport in the world, right behind what Americans call soccer. While I was vacationing in Hawaii, one of the owners of an NBA team spanned the stunning sunset, leaned over and told me, “We’ll have a team in Europe before you know it.”
What started me down this road was a speech. The speaker said: “Doing this to get rich? Get over it…The one thing standing in the way of happiness …is that sense of entitlement.”
If you only believed talk show sports pundits you might think the entitlement reference was to NBA players. We’ve been brainwashed and brawn-washed into thinking these players are brats. Talking heads have spewed spoiled brat-i-ness for so long one might forget to pay attention to the facts – and hence a more accurate sense of reality. By the way, the above comment was actually made by an Emory Law School professor at commencement to non-dribbling law school grads that are less likely to get a million dollar signing bonus.
Reality is that millions of people hear the talking heads but say nay. What resonates with them is not branding NBA players as knuckleheads. Rather it’s the realness of players like Derrick Rose – a 21 year old who stood up to accept the NBA’s MVP award as the youngest ever to do so. He could have taken that opportunity to brandish his own personal greatness. Instead, unrehearsed, he looked only at his mother and softly spoke of what she meant to him – saying he worked harder knowing how hard she worked to get him there. He ended with “I love you, Mom” in front of millions of TV-viewing macho men who may ridicule such players, but not whisper those same words in the privacy of their parents’ home. That is the same Derrick Rose that the NBA was smart enough to use for a promotional spot called “NBA Cares”, though it was preciously expensive commercial time during the Eastern Conferences Finals between Miami and Chicago. Despite the high cost air time, Rose didn’t speak the language of the entitled. In the most plain of English he talked about how players give back and ended by how he was taught “by giving you shall receive”. His sincerity was just as plain to see, and many NBA players give back more than we’ll know from television.
I think, and yes, I want to think, that it’s the sincerity, the unentitled realness that is the plasma for Oprah’s success and the NBA’s increased viewership. For the NBA, it’s not because of eye-popping on-court performances of a few stars. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and a Hall of Fame list of others had that. Without those stars, there is still a certain connectivity with millions of the more plain spoken among us. The term “plain spoken” is code for those of us who gain exhilaration from seeing extraordinary feats by otherwise ordinary people – the unentitled. As Rose said in the “NBA Cares” spot, “many of us came from neighborhoods in need… we want to take that experience and turn it back into something positive for our community” or words to that effect.
That law professor told the law grads something similar in hopes that her words would resonate with her audience. “You might also have to learn to be a giver, and not a taker. … Givers tend to be happy people, on the whole. Takers are never satisfied. I want you to be satisfied with your professional lives. That’s why I do this for a living. To look back later and say … look at the people I helped.”
Oprah too lives the “give back” philosophy. And she has succinctly said, “”Turn your wounds into wisdom.” When I watch the NBA, I see players who in many instances were wounded by being born into a fatherless home and a school system not of their choosing that does not compete with suburban systems. But in well-spoken articulate ways, I hear them speak about doing the right thing, and increasingly I see them growing in the wisdom to do it. I’ve noticed older players mentoring the non-college graduate rookies. As a result, there is a lesser incidence of crimes among those rookies than some other well-known sports. And after beating on each other all game, I see players from opposing teams hugging and whispering in the ear of their adversary, words not intended for TV. I suspect these are often words of respect and… wisdom.
The connectivity between Oprah and her fan base is not just about her guests, her on-show gifts, or her wit. And the connectivity with the players is beyond dunks and three pointers. They both resonate realness. People of ordinary intellect get it, watch it, and share it regardless of race and culture because that intangible “it” is a virtue common to humanity. This common language defies cultural barriers. Be it China, India, or Indiana, the NBA is growing because of that plasma. So I would not be shocked to see Oprah sitting next to Spike Lee at a Knicks game, or Jack Nicholson at the LA Forum. More assuredly, I expect to see more fans from China, India, and Indiana watching NBA players.
The Answer: They both draw big audiences for simply being gifted and real.