I was listening earlier this week to the latest Bill Simmons – Chuck Klosterman podcast(s), where the hosts tackled a variety of topics. One of those topics caught my ear, however, and it had to do with the nature of celebrity and the current state of the sport of basketball, which starts at about the 8 minute mark of Part 2 of the 7/18 podcast.
Anyone who’s listened to (or read) Simmons regularly knows he’s only interested in college basketball in relation to what kind of talent is bubbling through the pipes to feed his precious NBA. Meanwhile, Klosterman is very much a college sports fan, both basketball and football.
What made this discussion worth listening to was Klosterman saying that the NBA game has exceeded the college game in terms of the number of people who care about it, something that he didn’t think was possible when he first started watching basketball in the late 1970s. His summation of the reason why was quite interesting:
In every tier of society, entertainment, sports, politics, everything. There’s a greater emphasis on celebrity. And you can’t be a collegiate celebrity the way you can be a professional celebrity. You know, you can’t be a collegiate star the way you can be an NBA star, because an NBA star can mean things that have nothing to do with basketball. And that’s what drives everything now. Everything is driven by people’s sense of relationship with what they are watching. “Do I feel like I know this person? Do I know what this person is like outside of what I am watching?”.
This notion of “celebrity” in society is a near-constant these days, and much of it has to do with the interconnected nature of our culture. Whereas before, due to the distances between information sources and the time it took for news to travel, it was truly difficulty and unique for a person or group to achieve nationwide celebrity status. Now, culture is constantly focusing on celebrities, and the ability to follow multiple individuals in the pop culture sphere is there for anyone with a Twitter account.
We’ve also seen a merging of disparate areas of culture into one mass pop cultural conglomerate. It now seems as though movie stars, reality TV stars, sports figures, political figures, and a variety of other celebrity types occupy roughly the same cultural sphere.
So how does this affect college basketball? The notion of the game of college basketball being in decline is nothing new. There has been an unavoidable drain of talent from college hoops ever since the mid-1990s, when top-level talent started avoiding college basketball altogether and heading straight to the NBA. What that has done is decrease the availability of celebrity for the teams involved, and therefore the intrinsic importance of the game to casual observers. Yes, many college basketball fans are “fans” because they are alumni of the school, but that fandom is often fair-weather in nature. The small group of diehards at most schools is never going to be representative of the popularity of the sport as a whole. In other words, the affinity most people feel for college basketball starts and ends with their own teams.
The void in player celebrity has led college basketball marketers to focus on the most permanent type of celebrity they have — the coach. But as we’ve seen with the Penn State mess, placing so much stock in one person can lead to significant difficulty down the road. It also does little to build the brand of college basketball outside of the individual school.
College basketball worked for many years as a nationally important sport because the combination of top players, top coaches, and broadly-appealing styles of play resonated with the casual sports fan. It was easier to root for a brand identity (such as a UCLA or an Indiana) than it was to root for the NBA’s individualized athletes, many of whom seemed to be experiencing a different type of life than were the fans. But now, thanks in part to college basketball’s bastardization of itself, and thanks in part to the NBA’s far more effective use of both social and traditional media to humanize and popularize its athletes and coaches, the nature of the NBA game is more broadly fan-friendly than is the college game.
The attention being paid to the current “one-and-done” rule that the NBA has enforced has ultimately hurt the college game. Not because top players are leaving after a year, but because the NBA has artfully relegated the college game to nothing more than a feeder system in the eyes of the public. Colleges and conferences, for their part, have done nothing to dissuade this perception, instead placing themselves at the mercy of recruiting rankings and “Players drafted by the NBA” charts.
I’m saddened by all of this because I truly enjoy all of college basketball, and I want to see the sport succeed. There is an essence, a randomness in college basketball that doesn’t really exist in most other sports. The NCAA tournament exhibits that randomness better than any tournament in the world, and it remains a national sports treasure. But the core of the game is the regular season, and the regular season continues to erode. Unfortunately, the stewards of the rules of the game care only for the NCAA tournament, because it’s the only thing that generates any revenue for them.
Without strong central leadership and a definitive plan of action regarding the rules and direction of college basketball, I fear that the sport may soon grow as irrelevant to the national populace as college baseball. A pleasing few weeks in an otherwise dead period of the sports calendar, and nothing more.