clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Five Reasons the NFL is More Popular Than The NBA

Dave Deckard of answers a Mailbag question about the relative popularity of the NBA vs. the NFL and possible reasons for it.



The NFL season is going to open this weekend. [ed. True when the question was sent.  It has opened now.]  Every year at this time I wish it was basketball instead.  I know I'm a weird basketball junkie but my question is why more people aren't!  I think basketball is way better than football but most of America disagrees.  The NFL is everything here.  I assume since you write about the NBA you agree with me that basketball is the better game.  So why do so many people love football more?


You have me pegged correctly.  I like football well enough.  Having the pro game play out mostly on Sunday inhibits my ability to watch, so I don't really follow except on the most obvious occasions (Superbowl, occasional MNF game).  I appreciate what I'm able to see but it's not like basketball.  I find hoops more fluid, more beautiful.  Plus the action is closer to continuous than you find in the NFL.  Football is one play followed by six replays, repeated for three hours.  I get mad at NBA television directors when they show the reaction shot of a player who just made a goal because we're missing the next play.

I'm not arguing that one sport is superior to the other.  I'm claiming there shouldn't be such a popularity disparity between the two in our culture, at least not in my eyes.

I'm not sure I can name all the reasons this is true, but thinking over your question brought up several possibilities:

1.  Schedule

NBA teams have several games per week.  Unless they play Sunday and then Thursday night, NFL teams have one.  You know when it is months in advance.  You know who the opponent will be.  It's an event.  Once it's done you can return to the rest of your life, not getting interrupted again until next week.  It appears to be the perfect mix of convenience and anticipation.

Weekly scheduling also allows for easy, regular communal rituals like tailgating, Fantasy Football, and (let's face it) even drinking.  Life is...uncomplicated.  You show up on Sunday afternoon to eat together. You have all your fantasy stats at the end of the day and you have a whole week to plan your next moves before anything changes again.  If you get drunk at a basketball game the whole thing becomes a blur.  Don't worry about getting blasted at the NFL game, though.  They're going to show the damn play five more times on the big screen.  You'd have to be unconscious not to get it.  And hey, it's only one day a week.  Inebriation once a weekend is good fun in our culture.  Inebriation 4 games in 5 nights on a road trip is a problem, eh?

2.  You Can Still Root for the Names on the Front of the Jersey

Parity alone doesn't explain popularity.  Sometime parity just means everybody sucks.  Superteams, marquee franchises, help drive sports leagues.  But even with a couple of superteams in the league, your average NFL team's name will mean something year-to-year.  That's not as true in the NBA.

NFL teams play an unbalanced schedule, where weaker teams from the year prior get weaker opponents, allowing radical jumps in the standings.  Teams go from worst to first in NFL divisions every season.  How often does that happen in basketball?

The NFL shows off stars--particularly quarterbacks--but with 53 guys on the roster and separate offenses and defenses, teams are less dependent on the fortunes and quirks of a single player than are NBA teams.  Your average NBA team is hostage to the best player in the lineup.  If you don't have the right name on the back of the jersey, the name on the front is going to suck.  The NBA trend of marketing individuals over teams, highlight clips over plays, has exacerbated this issue in the minds of the casual viewer.

Example:  One of the key questions looming over the next season or two for the Portland Trail Blazers is the status of LaMarcus Aldridge.  Remove him from the lineup and there's no comparison; Portland is a radically different team with him than without.  This is also true of, say, Peyton Manning and the Broncos, but because of the wider base of talent and positions in the NFL, Bronco fans would still have something even if Peyton was traded.  Not only would they have the core of a team intact, they'd also get good players at other positions in return.  Failing that, they'd get a first-round draft pick in a league where those matter beyond the first 3-4 selections.  The difficulty of getting value for a star in trade are well-chronicled in the NBA.  Lose LaMarcus and the Blazers will all but start over.

If the star player doesn't work for you in basketball--whether it's bad fit, not talented enough, you just don't like/believe in him as a fan, or he just decides to leave in free agency--the name on the front of the jersey almost doesn't matter anymore.  You might as well be one of a dozen other indistinct-but-struggling teams.   Your NBA fan experience boils down to the performance--and sometimes the whim--of a single player.  That's harder to build sustained momentum behind than the good old Steelers or Bengals names.

3.  The NFL Does Rivalries Better

Speaking of Steelers and Bengals, Cowboys and Redskins, Jets and Patriots, Chiefs and Raiders...nothing peaks interest like a rivalry.  Other than Knicks-Heat or Celtics-Heat, does the NBA even have a modern rivalry anymore?  And will even those rivalries endure after the principal players have changed?

Who are the rivals for the Blazers or Timberwolves?  Someone will say, "The Lakers!" but the Lakers are rivals of everyone.  There's nothing unique or deep about it.  Who's going to tune in nationally to see the hot-blooded Blazers-Lakers feud?  Nobody outside of Portland even thinks there is one...including folks in L.A.

Rivalries help bring character and identity to non-marquee franchises.  The Blazers and Jazz could play each other 92 times and still not develop any in the process.  The NFL runs circles around the NBA in this category.

4.  "The NBA is Too Black"

I apologize to our African-American readers and/or anybody offended by the less-acceptable "Black" in the title, but I phrased it that way because I suspect it reflects the sentiment the broader culture carries.  Admittedly folks couch that sentiment in other terms, talking about visible cultural markers like music and fashion, but it boils down to the same thing.

To be absolutely clear: I perceive this as a problem with America's culture in general, not with African-American culture.  Also I confess I am not an expert on this subject and I know the dangers of playing armchair sociologist.  Nevertheless, I still feel something should be said here even if I end up saying it poorly.

America has accepted tacitly for years that Caucasians are a minority in professional sports.  White athletes are marketed more prominently than their African-American counterparts (Quick!  Name 4 NFL players off the top of your head!) but glitz and hype can't cover the fact that professional sports rosters are heavily populated with ethnic minorities.

Athletes in the other two major American sports wear body-length uniforms with some kind of head covering.  You can tell the ethnicity of a given athlete, of course, but NFL players are 98% uniform and 2% skin.  MLB is not that far behind with visor-heavy headgear, gloves, and equipment.

NBA players are out there for the world to see.  They're essentially playing in over-sized underwear.  You can't mistake it.  These guys are African-American.

The NBA became a major media phenomenon on the backs of three players:  Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan.  All three were marketed in alignment with the predominant culture.  Bird was white and had an easy in.  But what do you remember of Magic and Jordan?  Magic presented a broad, smiling face whenever the cameras rolled.  Michael rose to pop culture fame on the back of a Gatorade jingle.  I am not suggesting that either image was inauthentic, let alone outside the circle of African-American culture.  Both men were, and are, African-American.  But any parts of their make-up that went beyond their commercially-appealing image did not make the national airwaves.  Spike Lee movies aside, we were still in the era where the commercial face of "African-American" didn't scan as different, an era where racial equality meant saying, "Hey...we're all the same (meaning in accordance with the dominant culture) after all."  Sometimes I dream...that he is me...

As our culture moved forward into a new millennium so did our understanding, and expression, of culture.  Jordan's jingles gave way to hip-hop, varying hairstyles and clothing styles, and ever-more-prominent tattoos.  Racial sensibility changed from "we're all the same" to, "No, I'm different.  Respect that."

Some folks have gotten on board with that.  Some folks have embraced it.  Others see it as a threat.  A substantial portion of the population seems to fall into the category of, "That's all fine, but I don't want to be bothered with it in my entertainment choices.  I'm just here to enjoy.  Don't disturb my narrative.  Let me watch my movie or listen to my radio or watch my team in peace without having to deal with you being different."  In the face of that impulse we have:

NFL?  98% uniform coverage.  Most of the public figureheads and guys interviewed on TV are coaches or white players.  No problem at all.  Go Packers!!!

MLB?  90% uniform coverage.  Organs playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the stretch.  Nothing much is going to change here.

NBA?  Tattoos!  Hairstyles!  Hip-hop culture everywhere!  What happened?  Why do they do that?

When people find out that I write about the league they often talk about their perceptions of it.  One oft-repeated story runs, "I used to like pro basketball back when [insert former star from the 80's or 90's] played but nowadays it's all selfish play, loud music, etc. [insert grimace here]."   Though it reads racist, that's not the intent.  I would wager that to a person, they'd say that they support racial tolerance even if they're uncomfortable with some of its manifestations.  Rather they're reacting to the NBA the same way they react to turning on their comfortable FM popular music station and finding rap getting airplay.  "Augh!  What's that? Where are the Eagles and The Temptations?" [flip station]   Even if they think racial tolerance is an important goal, folks just aren't comfortable disrupting their "private" entertainment choices for it, or even having the two concepts mix much.

Hardcore NBA fans probably weren't fazed by the league's public cultural shift...embraced it even.  (Although...hmmm.  We did have that dress code thing a few years ago.)  But if you're talking widespread popularity you're talking about casual fans.  I suspect for many casual fans race--or the cultural manifestation thereof--remains a subtle bar to their participation.  Even if the barrier isn't high, water flows along the path of least resistance.  It's easier for folks to explain why they're watching Cowboys-Eagles this weekend than it is for them to face the grimace and the comments about cornrows as they explain they're watching Sixers-Bulls tonight.

Again, I perceive this as an issue with American culture, not with African-American culture or any subset (or stereotype) thereof.  Cultures aren't monolithic, nor are they all-encompassing.  We have problems in America when the fringes of one culture intersect with the fringes of another.  We draw camps, push apart.  Our choices narrow to fight, ignore, or abandon the field.  For better or worse, the NBA has found itself in that fringe territory.  Some folks have fought; others have ignored.  The salient point for our discussion is that many have just abandoned the field, leaving unfair labels and over-generalizations in their wake.  This is a challenge the NFL hasn't had to face in the same way.

5.  The NBA is Too Fake

Sports are entertainment.  Every league makes choices that balance the tradition/integrity of the sport with its entertainment value to the public.  Of the three major U.S. sports leagues, the NBA is perceived as the most willing to sacrifice integrity to attract viewers...and this in a race with Major League Baseball and its full-fledged, home-run heavy steroid era.

Every league is accused of having bad referees.  No league is suspected of actually cooking the books, using refs to obtain desired outcomes for favored teams, like the NBA is.

Every league has star players, marketed and protected.  No league markets its superstars more heavily, depending on them so much.  No league is accused of having such a strong "star system" in place where the rules actually bend for favored players.  I say "accused", but is it even a question anymore?  Don't most people just accept that superstars will get calls that other players will not?

Every league has marquee matchups.  No league bows to those matchups more than the NBA, particularly in their playoff coverage.  If the best basketball is being played between Milwaukee and Cleveland but the Lakers and Mavericks are on the air, most of America won't know that Milwaukee and Cleveland exist.  Who cares if the play is second-rate as long as the right names appear in the TV Guide?

The instant the NBA instituted a lottery they were accused of fixing it.

David Stern is spoken of as a history-making Commissioner and a really smart guy.  He's also painted as the master manipulator willing to bend any kind of rule in order to achieve his desired outcome...Vince McMahon in a legitimate sport.

Each of these points contains veracity and falsehood.  Those are less important than the fact that nothing I just said was a surprise to you.  These perceptions are common knowledge, attached irrevocably to the NBA name.  It's sports.  It's entertainment.  Which will predominate?  Honestly, people aren't always sure.

Plenty of institutions walk the line between reality and show.  Most of television qualifies nowadays, including the news.  But that line brings with in an inherent transience.  Institutions with substance get passed on from generation to generation.  It doesn't matter how much actual integrity the institution has as long as it can be called integral.  "Our family is Republican," or, "We've farmed this land for four generations," or, "We drive Chevy Trucks" can all form solid roots for a family tree.  But entertainment never gets passed on from generation to generation.  How many children listen to their dad's music or watch their mom's TV shows and say, "This is the best thing ever and I will adopt it for my own, forever"?

To the extent an NBA franchise is whole, integral, attached to something permanent that you can trust, it can be passed on.  "The Trail Blazers are God's team, son.  The Lakers are pure evil."  It doesn't matter if those statements are empirically true.  If the league structure around those two teams remains sound and they continue to compete in fair fashion we are free to build our own meaning into the exercise and make it mean more than it otherwise would have.  As soon as that integrity fails, so does our ability to build on it and pass it on.  "Things are kind of rigged here to favor certain teams but I grew up watching the Trail Blazers, son, and it's a fun game to watch anyway!"  That's not going to transfer to the next generation.

The WWE got enormously popular in the late 1990's and early 2000's, right around the same time the curtain got pulled back and the "entertainment" aspect of it was revealed.  That revelation didn't hurt the generation that first heard it.  But what about their children?  Are they following WWE or have they moved to MMA or something else entirely?

The NBA's huge popular culture boom happened in the mid-80's with Magic-Bird through the 90's with Jordan.  The Celtics-Lakers era was considered sport, but even then you had the 1985 Ewing lottery and whispers that the league was edging towards big-market favoritism.  The Jordan era got a little more shady with push-offs and traveling but still remained on the sport side of the line.  Then you got Shaq's flying elbows, the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the desperate search for the "Next Jordan" and the heavy marketing of players and teams who didn't deserve it.  All of a sudden everybody talked about Stern and refs and fixing results.  Entertainment appeared to edge out sport and integrity.

No matter what rumors started swirling, everybody knew Mike in the 90's.  That whole generation stuck with it.  But again, what about their children?  Are they following the NBA or have they moved to the NFL or something else entirely?

Casual fans have plenty of options for entertainment nowadays, most of which don't involve leaving the house.  The casual perception of the NBA drifted farther and farther from integrity in the precise time when integrity would have been its surest lifeline to relevance...reality being in short supply in today's entertainment world.


Schedule, rivalries, continuity, cultural chameleon power, and integrity...the NFL has the edge over the NBA in all of these things.  This explains, in part, why the NFL is king and the NBA constantly has to push its way into public consciousness.  But these aren't complete explanations.  What other factors do you see coming into play?  Share your thoughts below.

--Dave (