When in Doubt, Blame it on Hip-Hop
In case you weren’t already aware, hip-hop has been under attack for the past few weeks. Besides being lambasted for its normal transgressions (acts of violence, misogyny, etc), hip-hop has been roundly blamed for causing poor Don Imus to be confused about proper linguistic etiquette. It was only a matter of time before the Hip-Hop Haterati started blaming hip-hop culture (i.e. young black athletes) for what they perceive as the decline in the popular appeal of the NBA. In a blog I came across yesterday one of the aforementioned Haterites tried to link the “cultural marginalization” of the NBA to its ties with hip-hop culture over the last 10-15 years. The blogger’s spectactularly pedestrian analysis was worthy of at best a “B” in 10th grade Rhetoric, but in the hostile climate created by the Don Imus conflagration it actually passes for a credible argument worthy of mention and discussion on ESPN.com
As the sport has further fused itself with hip-hop culture over the past 10-15 years, liking hip-hop music and the NBA have become one and the same. While the league isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it’s becoming more difficult to consider it mainstream culture.
The evidence offered to defend the argument:
-Regular-season network ratings have cut in half since 1998
-One regular-season game this season on ABC got a 1.0 national HH rating, less than a quarter of the average regular-season rating in 1998
-The ratings for this year’s All-Star weekend (especially the game on Sunday) were about as big of a disappointment to Turner as the “South Central” atmosphere was to visitors of the MGM Grand
-Playoff ratings across the board have also faced similar declines
Let’s be honest here, “mainstream culture” is code for “white” just like “hip-hop culture” is code for black. The insinuation is that as the NBA has become “blacker” it has lost its audience. This argument is about as unoriginal as it is untruthful. At best, it feeds into the stereotype that grew out of the cornrow phenomenon and the establishment of a dress code, which was widely regarded as an attack on the increasingly thuggish image of NBA players. However, in initiating the code David Stern was not responding to any particular dip in the game’s popularity. Ticket sales were rising. Global Merchandising was through the roof. David Stern was doing what David Stern does: protecting his product from the possibility of a backlash not an actual backlash.
Furthermore, if you look at the NBA Finals theme songs over the last five years, you would be hard-pressed to find a true “hip-hop” song among them:
02-03 “Dig In” – Lenny Kravitz
03-04 “Let’s Get It Started” – Black Eyed Peas
04-05 “This Is How A Heart Breaks” – Rob Thomas
05-06 “Runnin’ Down A Dream” – Tom Petty
This year’s theme song, the Pussycat Dolls’ “Right Now,” is by no stretch of the imagination an example of hip-hop music.
Resting the decline in ratings at hip-hop’s doorstep is about as bad as bullying the smallest kid in class in the lunch line. Hip-hop is an easy target because few people sympathize with what they believer are overpaid, oversexed, overindulged rappers and athletes who generally don’t care what people think about them.
The reality is this, though: ABC does a really bad job with the NBA. From the scheduling to the time slots to its cross promotional adventure with Dancing with the Stars, ABC succeeds in giving the NBA fan every reason in the world not to watch a game. All you really need to know about ABC is that it is owned by Disney, and that nothing Disney is involved with has an edge.
The reality is also this: the NBA has watered down the talent pool through expansion to a point where a record number of guys who aren’t even college stand-outs at major universities are opting to enter the draft as underclassmen. The new hand-check rules favoring guards, the constant stoppages of play, the all-too frequently whistled Charge call, and the quick technical foul whistle for any lip and/or aggressive play, have all conspired to drain the game of its chutzpah. The marketing strategy is directly related to the watering down of the league. While the NFL’s community service commercials are at the very least self-effacing and ironic at times, the NBA Cares commercials are downright sentimental and nauseating. I love the kids, too. I want to see them read like any one else. I just don’t want to Lebron James dressed up as Santa Claus three times a game.
Another contributing factor to the decline in ratings is the exclusivity of the NBA game. Somewhere within the last five or six years NBA games became celebrity-sighting spots outside of the standard Los Angeles and New York venues. Nowadays it’s almost extraordinary if some tanned, contented celebrity isn’t sitting in the front row in even the most obscure arena. Basketball has become the game of the rich and famous. Between the sky-boxes, the floor seats, the insane ticket prices and the outlandish vendor prices, the average fan has been systematically alienated from the game. NBA All-Star Weekend, for instance, has turned into perhaps the biggest celebrity networking event outside the Superbowl. “Mainstream” people have a hard time relating to celebrity culture, not hip-hop culture, which is merely a sub-plot within the larger matrix of gross and ostentatious wealthism that turns off people who are simply struggling to stay afloat.
The evolution of interactive websites and 24-hour sports networks also contribute to the supposed decline in viewership. We don’t have to watch the game to follow the game. Immediately after a game is over, we can log onto the Internet and find complete summaries plus highlights and press conferences. If we don’t want to go online, we can simply turn on a cable sports network and catch all of the highlights we want.
I hope I am not stepping out of line when I say the Nielson rating system is an impracticable indicator of basketball viewership. For one thing, Nielson boxes are in less than 10,000 American homes and have only recently begun accounting for the growing percentage of Americans who rely on DVRs to tape their programs. But even granting the Nielson rating system a measure of reliability as a means of accounting for the viewing habits of a given family, it does not account for the number of people who gather to watch a game under one roof. Moreover, it does not have any way of tracking the number of people watching a game at sports-bars around the country.
If we really want to know whether “mainstream culture” cares about the NBA we have to look at numbers we can actually measure. For example, we know that when the Denver Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson last winter 340 new season ticket packages were purchased in a single day. By the following day a total of 600 packages had been purchased. After the 2005-06 season the NBA reported its highest ever attendance averages and totals throughout the league. After last season 93% of the Phoenix Suns’ season ticket holders re-purchased plans for the 2006-07 season. Those are hardcore numbers that stand up under the weight of scrutiny.
When the NHL’s struggle to woo fans is discussed, no one ever says anything about cultural marginalization. No one suggest that maybe fans are turned off by the sport’s glorification of violence. No, what people routinely discuss is the NHL Lockout two years ago. The NBA is never given that kind of leeway even when the facts don’t corroborate a flimsy, biased opinion that fans are losing interest in the game because it is, essentially, too black. The NBA Playoffs are with us for the next three months. A less than stellar opening weekend should be read more accurately as a regular season hangover than as an indication of the waning relevance of the game. As for people with a biased agenda, they should be more forthright in their analysis.
A Message to the Haterati: hip-hop is not your whipping boy, bitch, scapegoat, red-headed stepchild or nappy-headed ho.
Now that you’ve been warned, blog at your own peril.