Without question, the past few years have been great for the NBA, while tough for the NFL.
While the NBA has ridden a host of marketable stars to position itself as the league of the future, the NFL has been marred by spats with politicians, protestors, fans and its own players.
However, when it came to revenues, the $15 billion NFL business remained the king compared to the $7.5 billion business of the NBA.
But the NBA has been making up ground abroad. While the NFL has found success in bringing football to England, the NBA has been a slam dunk on seemingly every continent.
That was highlighted by its growing business in China, where it had a growing $4 billion company and hundreds of millions of rabid fans.
While the leagues do not openly compete, the tailwinds behind the NBA amid the headwinds the NFL has been facing has led some media to speculate that basketball might soon eclipse football.
However, a single tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressing support for Hong Kong protesters has threatened to destroy the league’s fast-growing empire in China – as well as its pathway to an equal footing between the NBA and NFL among corporate sponsors, media and fans.
One NFL team official, who declined to be named, said he’s enjoyed watching NBA players and coaches publicly bend to the wishes of the Chinese government.
While many of the NBA’s biggest stars have been vocal about U.S. issues, many chose not to speak on this issue or dodge the topic, or in the case of LeBron James, deal with critics on both sides of the issue.
The NFL team official said that now that these players risk losing their own money and sneakers deals in China, it appears they’re scared to address the issue, he said – seemingly complying to the “shut up and dribble” criticism.
“I love seeing the ‘woke’ NBA hoisted by its own political petard,” said the executive.
By kowtowing to the Chinese government, the NBA has lost the moral high ground, according to Tim Brando of Fox Sports.
There’s a “double-standard” between how the media covers the NBA and how it covers, say, college sports, said the veteran play-by-play announcer.
“College sports? It’s open season ALWAYS,” said Brando.
Meanwhile, the U.S. media has been nearly as reluctant about defending free speech in Hong Kong as the NBA, Brando added.
“Imagine what a guy like Howard Cosell would have done with a story like this on (ABC’s) Wide World of Sports back in the day?” asked Brando.
But Jeff Diamond, the former NFL executive of the year with the Minnesota Vikings turned sports business consultant, hasn’t seen his former NFL front office colleagues spiking the football over the NBA’s China troubles.
“I don’t know who in the NFL had a persecution complex about the NBA. But I never felt that way when I was involved with the league. So I can’t necessarily speak to that issue,” Diamond said.
However, being viewed as progressive on social issues ultimately has its limits for big business sports leagues, warned Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive who now serves as executive director of The Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University.
Brandt wonders why the Rockets’ GM’s free speech tweet has not gotten more support — and if he’ll lose his job? Whatever happens, the NBA brand can no longer position itself as morally superior to that of the NFL, said the ex-ESPN analyst. That matters in the world of sports media where advertisers want to align themselves with the hottest leagues.
“You can’t just say Adam Silver and the NBA are progressives with a blanket statement. Because it seems like it’s selective,” noted Brandt.
Despite its progressive reputation, the NBA is acting conservatively when it comes to this geopolitical crisis, wrote Brandt in a Sports Illustrated column Wednesday night. In fact, the NBA is acting, wait for it, more like the NFL.
The late advertising executive Bill Bernbach liked to say, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”
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The bottom line? Both sports leagues may care more about their fiscal bottom line than anything else. Especially protestors in far-off Hong Kong.
Or as Brandt wrote: “The NBA-China imbroglio, as international an incident as an American sports league can have, has proven this about the two most popular sports leagues in this country: they are more alike than different.”