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Adam Silver's gauntlet: The NBA should rival the NFL

The new commissioner thinks pro basketball should rival pro football. Is it plausible?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Silver's first road trip as commissioner of the NBA landed him in Sacramento on Wednesday to take in Raptors vs. Kings, also known as the Rudy Gay Revenge Game. Special guests customarily join the broadcast team during the second quarter, and Silver was no exception. He had the usual platitudes for the Kings' new management and the city's mayor, and the commish also talked about his experiences in basketball.


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But he also said something that sounded rather like a gauntlet to both his staff and the predominant American sports league.

"As much as we talk about international [...] I still think there's an enormous opportunity in the United States. [...] I think this game should be a rival to football. In the United States, it's the No. 1 participatory sport. We've all played it. I want to focus on the game. The business is going well, but this is a beautiful game."

Emphasis mine, but only because you can't literally speak in boldface (if we started using basic HTML like we do air quotes, though, that would be amazing).

The NFL sees annual revenues of about $10 billion, compared to the NBA's $4 billion. NFL playoff TV ratings often double or triple those of the NBA. The annual Harris Interactive poll about sports this year found that 36 percent of respondents consider pro football their favorite sport. Pro basketball claims five percent.

"I think this game should be a rival to football."

That's a mighty task. It is arguably not currently a rival to baseball, though demographics make a pretty strong case that the NBA and MLB will be on even ground in terms of popularity fairly soon, if they are not already. The key to the NBA's domestic growth can actually be found in that Harris Interactive poll. It registers pro basketball around auto racing and the NHL in terms of being folks' favorite sport.

But the NBA is way more popular in conventional measures than either NASCAR or the NHL. Just look at TV ratings. The deciding Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals last season -- the third most-watched hockey broadcast since 1995 -- had an average rating of 4.7. Meanwhile, Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals ran a 15.3 rating.

What the Harris Interactive poll tells us is that there are as many hardcore NHL fans as there are hardcore NBA fans. Where the NBA beats the NHL and auto racing is with casual fans, that is, fans who might consider pro football or baseball their favorite sport, but who watch a good amount of NBA action. The NHL doesn't have that level of crossover. It could be argued that ESPN The Television Network's mistreatment of hockey is a big reason for that. I'd buy it, but that is not the focus here.

The NBA has the casual fans. For a month each year, college basketball picks up a bunch, too. Golf picks up a good bit four weekends a year. Hockey picks up some for the playoffs. But among the leagues chasing the NFL, the NBA is the second or third choice. That's not a bad place to be.

To actually rival the NFL some day, though, the NBA needs to be the first choice of more fans. A lot of folks seem to think the NFL will hemorrhage fans uncomfortable with the concussion issue, but there's little evidence that's actually happening (the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl just broke viewership records.) To get where Silver wants to go, the NBA has to actively rob hardcore fans from the NFL (pretty implausible) or dominate the younger demographic. It's a huge ask for his staff, his teams and his stars.

What's most interesting, though, is that Silver tabbed well-respected exec Mark Tatum as his deputy commissioner. Tatum is rare at this level of league management. He's not a lawyer, but he's rather a marketing guy. Before Silver promoted him as his deputy, Tatum was the league's EVP of global marketing and worked with ESPN/ABC and Turner on those broadcast and sales deals. Building the league's fan base domestically is a marketing problem. Tatum is positioned well to try to solve it.

Regardless of whether Silver, Tatum and everyone else is successful, it should be fun to watch them try to catch the football ... especially if Silver's commitment to the game itself is more than lip service.

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