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Growing Popularity In Big Cities Should Be NBA's Focus

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Fans may not have a dog in the NBA lockout fight, but we should be focused on ensuring the popularity of basketball continues to rise.

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The New York Knicks are the poster child for those who dislike the NBA's current soft cap system. Since 2005-2006, the Knicks have paid nearly $800 million in total payroll, almost twice as much as the vast majority of NBA teams. In that span, they've managed a winning percentage of .370.

But if money doesn't necessarily buy success in the NBA, why shouldn't the Knicks be able to spend as they see fit?

The ability of big-market teams to spend more money is often seen as unfair, but the issue isn't that cut and dry. The reason teams in big markets can spend more money is because they have more fans. 

The New York metro area has approximately 18.9 million residents. That's as many people as Portland (2.2 million), Sacramento (2.1 million), San Antonio (2.1 million), Orlando (2.1 million), Cleveland (2.1 million), Indianapolis (1.8 million), Milwaukee (1.6 million), Memphis (1.3 million), Oklahoma City (1.3 million), New Orleans (1.2 million) and Salt Lake City (1.1 million) combined.

Would a system that ensured all 30 franchises were on an even playing field, so that 19 million New Yorkers had the same 3.3% chance of seeing their home team win an NBA championship as 1 million Oklahomans, be any more fair? Should an individual fan count less because they live in a bigger city?

Arguments for parity almost invariably mention the NFL. By popular telling, it became the biggest sport in the US because its more socialized system ensures any team can win on "Any Given Sunday". 

However, the biggest reason why the NFL is so huge is because football is America's most popular sport. In large portions of the country, college football is just as popular as the NFL, despite the NCAA having zero semblance of competitive balance. The majority of American sports fans just love watching football, whether in high school, college or the pros.

Basketball, unlike football, is a more star-driven sport. That's why the ‘80s and ‘90s were seen as the "Golden Era" of the NBA, when the game's biggest stars (Jordan, Bird, Magic) played in some of its biggest markets (Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles). 

And if small markets had no chance to acquire a franchise player, their fans would have a legitimate reason to complain about the fairness of the NBA's system. But the Knicks and the Lakers have limits to how much they can spend on an individual player, unlike in baseball, where the Yankees and the Red Sox will always be the highest bidder. The Spurs have shown that you can build a dynasty in a small market, while the Thunder have been able to retain a young superstar in the prime of his career

LeBron has been unfairly vilified for leaving his hometown team, but he did sign an extension with the Cavs once before. If he had a young core of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka around him, instead of an aging and capped-out group headlined by Mo Williams and Anderson Varejaohe probably would have stayed in Cleveland

Of course, not every small market franchise can be as well run as San Antonio and Oklahoma City, and the Thunder have a much smaller margin for error than the Mavericks or the Lakers. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, because they represent the interests of a much smaller group of people. 

Long-term, having winning teams where the majority of fans are is the best way to grow the sport of basketball. And while the main issue of contention in the lockout is how players and owners will distribute revenues, whether the new CBA grows the NBA's popularity should be fans' primary concern.

Of all the major sports, basketball is by far the easiest sport to play once you reach adulthood. On the whole, people I know who played basketball in high school tend to be in much better shape than those who concentrated on football or baseball, simply because it's so much easier to organize a pick-up basketball game.

Just as important, playing a sport recreationally is one of the only ways Americans from different economic, social and racial backgrounds connect anymore. As the sociologist Robert Putnam demonstrated in his award-winning book Bowling Alone, the rate of civic participation in the US has plummeted in the last generation. Especially in big cities, the sense of community is disappearing

Basketball is a sport that gets people in shape and involved with their neighbors, and anything that grows the sport and gets more Americans doing that is a fundamentally good thing.