I’ve taken my sons (ages 14 and 11) to three Portland Trailblazers games this year (vs. Warriors, Lakers, and Bucks). It’s been fun, but it hasn’t been cheap. Even with free tickets to one of the games, I’d guess that we’ve spent at least $600 on tickets and assorted snacks at the Moda Center in the last six months. It hurts to see that number in print, but my boys are basketball junkies right now. I’m a basketball junkie right now. The NBA is on fire — packed with more top-level talent and more marketable stars than maybe at any other point in its history. So it’s worth it. We’re making memories.
But this isn’t a post about what the NBA is doing right. It’s about everything each of its franchises does to distract fans from the game itself—all the pre-game entertainment, the low-production-value hype videos, the constant flood of music, the half-time variety shows, or the endless canned encouragement to chant “Defense.” In January, my 11yo son was even in an on-court game where he wore huge shoes, an afro wig, and a warm-up suit while trying to run full-court and make a lay-up. Was it cool to see him on the court? Absolutely. I get it (even though I also can’t stand it). Parents dish out a lot of money to take kids to the games—and we gave up on trusting kids to get through anything without excessive stimuli long ago. Meanwhile, people in corporate suites might only care about free drinks, nachos, and the Blazers Trampoline Dunk Team. You have to meet your audience on its level. You have to entertain the basketball fans because they might not actually like basketball. That’s the argument, right? I hate this argument.
If you’re in Atlanta or Miami (known for fickle fan-bases), Denver or Orlando (hopelessly stuck in rebuilding), Philadelphia or Phoenix (trust the process!)—fine. The product on the floor isn’t great, so you have to give fans something to smile about. Keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’re within the group of NBA teams that has an interesting team and a serious fanbase, maybe there’s another way. (Quick aside: I just realized this is turning into another one of my “free ideas!” posts — but if an NBA owner wants to get serious about this, they really ought to call me. I’ll accept some floor tickets in return for all of this groundbreaking wisdom.)
Here it is: Certain NBA cities ought to get rid of all the distractions. It’s the perfect zag to the zigging of over-stimulated, over-encouraged, over-hyped, over-entertained NBA games.
Portland was once known as the fiercest NBA fanbase in the country. You could say the same about Oakland, New York (the Knicks, obviously), San Antonio, Chicago, and Seattle (RIP Sonics / David Stern is the worst of all people). Even typically humble Salt Lake City was known for its savage crowds in the Stockton-to-Malone era. Why don’t we trust them to be just as amazing now?
The way to make it happen is simple—
- Drop the music in between plays.
- Stop telling fans when to cheer.
- Halftime entertainment can be no more complicated than people shooting half-court shots for large sums of money—or cars.
- Get rid of your dance teams.
- Re-assign your stunt team to the D-League. (You don’t really pay any of these extracurricular squads, anyway, so it’ll be simple to make the change.)
- Trampoline dunkers are allowed once every 10 games (if they only show up 4–5 times a season, imagine how much more amazing they’ll be).
- No awkwardly erotic gymnastic yoga couples.
- No quick-change artists (although they are pretty amazing).
- No terribly crafted videos with players reading from cue cards.
- Let the fans take control.
Will it work? Yes. Will it work right away? I don’t know. It’ll be like when you accidentally leave your phone at home on a trip to Home Depot. At first, you’re like “AAAAHHHHH! I FORGOT MY PHONE! HOW WILL I DO ANYTHING?!” Then, two minutes later, all you can think is “This is incredible. I can wander around and talk to people and look at light fixtures or toilets, stand in the lumber section enjoying the sweet aroma of fresh-cut pine.” You buy something without comparing prices at Lowe’s, Orchard Supply and roughly 17 other online retailers. You get a few tacos on the way home because you’re free and untethered. Someone is probably texting you, but it feels so good not to know anything about it. Fewer distractions + short window of time = peak engagement/enjoyment.
The change would be simple. Start the season with a simple, bold message to your fans. Tell them that things are going to change, that you’re sorry for not believing in them — for treating them all like children. From now on, the game is in their hands. They’ll make the noise. They’ll lift up the players. They’ll talk to each other and come up with a way to signal which cheer/chant/song/action is demanded by the moment. They’ll start to resemble European soccer fans, the most passionate/clever/insane fans in the world. That’s your new brand: Pure hoops. Give them a game or two. They’ll figure it out. And they’ll love you for it.
I don’t believe any NBA owner would actually do this. The Knicks kind of tried (in the most half-hearted and possibly passive-aggressive fashion) earlier this season and it was a mess. But if we’ve learned anything over the last 10 years, it’s that the Knicks can’t do anything right. Don’t let their failure scare you.
If you prove me wrong — if you have the courage to trust the people who really love the product you’re selling — we should talk. The idea is free (except for the courtside tickets, of course), but pulling it off might require the skills of a small, nimble band of creative professionals.