Spanning the Continental Divide
As soon as the NBA returned from the 2011 lockout, fans were reminded why we hate to love this game: the association’s meddling with the New Orleans Hornets’ attempts to trade Chris Paul, and David Stern’s eventual strong-arming of the Los Angeles Clippers, showed us just how shady American basketball can be.
A superstar was lifted away from a middle-of-the-road team in a depressed city and dropped off in a major market flush with cash. This isn’t unique in 2011 and the phenomenon extends beyond American sports.
Paul’s move draws trans-Atlantic parallels to Wayne Rooney’s origins at Liverpool-based Everton. One of the most exciting young players in England, he was eventually signed by Manchester United for a transfer fee of £25.6 million, a then-record for an under-20-year-old player. And Everton, a perpetual mid-table club, was left to find another blossoming star that would undoubtedly leave. They’re still looking.
And therein lies one of the masochistic elements of following a local, floundering team. The city’s lights are never bright enough, its profile never big enough. In American basketball and English soccer, the richest teams attract the most glamorous players, leaving the competition with the scraps.
It’s becoming harder to ignore that America’s most internationally popular sport – basketball – is morphing into the Barclay’s Premier League. Yes, the games are different and some will argue that the on-field action disproves this theory. But, in the way NBA and EPL teams are managed, followed and marketed, the distinctions between the two are blurring.
There have only been 18 champions (2 teams, the Syracuse Nationals and Seattle SuperSonics, are now defunct) in the NBA’s nearly 60-year modern history. Between 1959 and 1969, the Boston Celtics won nine titles. In contrast, there have been only four EPL champions since the league was founded in 1993, including an improbable, last-day-of-the-season victory by Blackburn Rovers in 1995. What is remarkable is how little parity exists in both leagues. Manchester United has won 12 out of 19 possible championships; the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have won 17 titles each.
Why do fans continue to root for players who have no loyalty to their city? The best often get frustrated and leave town, forcing the fans to wonder what might have been and move on to the next guy.
Everybody wants to bask in the presence of a winner. But what about those who willfully accept, and embrace, mediocrity? How is sport an escape from their own lives? To be a fan of the Phoenix Suns or Fulham is, indeed, a lifetime lesson in patience.
The success of certain franchises in the NBA and EPL creates easy parallels: the Lakers and Celtics match up well with Manchester United and Liverpool. New-money teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, always accused of buying talent instead of developing it, feel like the Miami Heat and (shockingly) Los Angeles Clippers. Teams that survive on youth (Oklahoma City Thunder and Tottenham Hotspur) and system-based play (San Antonio Spurs and Arsenal) tend to find success without high-profile signings. In both leagues, marquee players drive big-market teams and fans fuel small-markets.
As the NBA talent pool continues to concentrate in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the league will face resistance from smaller markets. Since basketball is not the only game in town in many cities, fans are free to spend their time and money elsewhere. And for clubs like the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz the ability to compete is becoming harder. The NBA is playing games in London while Manchester United tours America. The world is getting smaller and it is now harder to be a fan of your city, and your team, than ever before.
The power structure in basketball is changing and we’re entering an era that closely resembles English soccer. A few big teams will become commercial, and international, success stories while the have-nots will be stuck in what amounts to a second league within the NBA and being a fan of a mid- to low-tier NBA team will require the passion and patience of mid-table brethren across the Atlantic.