Student Voice


May 24, 2024



NBA losing fans due to international influence

October 23, 2009

For most of the 90s, the NBA was at the top of the charts in terms of popularity in America. It sat there along with the NFL competing for the top sport in America. It did help that fans were being turned off of baseball because of the 1994-95 strike, and that hockey has never been the top sport in America, ever.

But even without the help of the other sports on the decline, the NBA held its own with their fan base. The NBA flourished in the 90s with the help of Michael Jordan, who won the finals three times in a row twice from 1990-93 and again from 1995-98.

The 1992 Olympic team, also known as the “Dream Team”—the first to use current NBA players—also helped put the stars in the international spotlight and gave the NBA exposure outside North America. Stars like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley shined on the international stage.

In the late 90s and early 2000s the dynasties of the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers gave the NBA a new rivalry to watch. The Spurs and Lakers combined to win 8 of the next 11 championships after the ‘98 season.

So with the NBA having so many identifiable stars and new rivalries coming about, why does it seem like it has been on the decline for the past decade in terms of popularity? I have come up with a few ideas that could be reasons for the decline.

I believe the reason that makes the most sense to me is all the 1990 superstar players like Bird, Johnson, Jordan, Pippen and Ewing retired. There have been new faces like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James, but there are not as many big-name stars that are easily identifiable to fans.

Another reason I believe the NBA has taken a hit in ratings is actually the same reason I believe the NHL is suffering with ratings: that is the international influence in the game. Americans identify easier with the players they got to see in high school and college that have made it to the NBA, so they know more about the player once they get to the big stage. When international players enter the draft and get into the NBA the average fan doesn’t know a whole lot about the player and therefore doesn’t relate to the player as easily.

Over the past decade the NBA “thug” type of image with the baggier uniforms, on the court actions like getting into fights with the crowd and getting into trouble with the law. These black marks turn away basketball fans from the game.

One last reason I have come up with is that the game has turned to all offense, and the balance of good offense vs. good defense is gone. Players can easily drive to the hoop and score. A lot of people I’ve talked to say they would rather watch college basketball over the NBA because it’s more balanced and teams actually play defense. And with that, games become more interesting and storylines between teams become more interesting.

Once again, baseball has taken a hit this decade with its fan base because of the steroids era that has developed and hockey is still taking a backseat to the rest of the major sports in America. Can the NBA get back to its dominance in popularity like in the ‘90s? With a new decade approaching us, we will have to wait and see.

Derek Johnson is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.


Bob Kotecki on 25 Oct 2009: Are you serious about this article? The conclusions in your article are so off base I had to respond. Here are a few examples. 1. You missed perhaps the most obvious reason that the NBA is having some issues attracting and maintaining fans - high school players coming out early to the pros and not having the fundamentals of the game developed. The international players in general bring an understanding of the game to the table. 2. International influence of hockey has hurt the game? What about it being a niche sport AND having no TV contract? And the strike earlier this decade didn't help the game for the fan base that was watching the sport. 3. You mention the San Antonio Spurs as an example of a team someone can identify with. Are you aware that two of their stars are Manu Ginobelli (Argentina) and Tony Parker (France) are foreign? 4. You commented the NBA game has turned to all offense. Are you aware that the NBA instituted the "zone" defense a number of years ago, hence clogging the middle of the court (you commented "Players can easily drive to the hoop and score"). Did you even check the facts to see if scoring is up in recent years vs. prior years? These are just a few examples. I understand you may be a college student, but that is not a reason to publish an article with factual errors and virtually no basis.