NBA Players' Star-Like Personalities Contribute to the Growth of Basketball in Canada

Logan Lockhart
BarnBurner Sports Writer


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

TORONTO, Ont. -- The NBA puts an emphasis on individuals on and off court, and in the case of the NHL, the stars of the game have never felt so detached from the people who love the game the most. 


In a panel discussion hosted by Tim Doyle on March 25, Sean Fitz-Gerald of The Athletic and Rachel Brady of The Globe and Mail outlined why the growth of basketball is a threat to Canada’s game, and how the popularity of the professional leagues in both respective sports are going in opposite directions. 


The nature of basketball tends to focus on one player, making it easier for the NBA to capitalize on marketing campaigns that promote lifestyle and celebrity culture. 


“Whether it was Kobe Bryant during his days in the league or LeBron (James)--they have a Hollywood-like star-power,” said Brady over a Zoom conference call. “They’re engaged in movies and in fashion. The guys like Steph Curry and James Harden--those are personalities that are so big. The marketing power that’s behind these guys is, yes, from the league, but also, these guys are businessmen in themselves.”


Former NBA players like Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan have all solidified themselves in the world of pop culture, and have just as much star and name value today as they did when they were contemporary players.


Unlike in the NHL, players in the NBA are not hidden behind a helmet, both literally and figuratively, as professional hockey players have been the subject of downplaying the fun of the sport through media appearances and even in their body language as they enter the arena. 


“Sports are fun,” said Fitz-Gerald. “But hockey players sometimes make it seem like they’re going to work in the salt mine. They punch in at the beginning of the day and they punch at the end of the day, and you never get a sense that this is fun. And that’s one of the big issues.” 


The difference between NHL and NBA players appears to be large, based on personalities and brands they carry around, but it’s also the public interaction NBA players are seen to have with global celebrities. 


“(The NBA) has got all these interactions with the music and entertainment industry,” said Brady. “That has built their all-star game into a yearly bonanza of star power and celebrity that exceeds most of the other leagues.”


Celebrity culture is bigger than ever, thanks to the rise of social media and the short attention spans more and more people have today. The NBA provides the “quick hits” to satisfy the short attention spans, something the NHL struggles to do. 


“They (the NBA) have done a great job of creating these relationships,” said Brady. “Whether it’s the Raptors and Drake, or Spike Lee with the Knicks and other people along courtside--it naturally creates these relationships where you can see the players interacting with these other famous people.”


The detachment of hockey players to fans in a physical sense prevents any such interactions from happening, as the NBA capitalizes on the intimacy of its product where fans or celebrities can be three feet away from a player when they sit courtside. 


Despite being one of the four major sports leagues in North America, the NHL remains a niche product amongst hardcore fans in the U.S., based on the amount of capital involved in the American television deals. The NBA’s knack of persistence in emphasizing lifestyle marketing wise has separated themselves from the NHL not only in Canada, swaying the casual audience towards basketball. 


Just like in the media industry, changes happen rapidly in both the NBA and NHL. Unfortunately for the NHL, the sport’s culture and the league’s marketing initiatives may be falling on the wrong side of history. 


“It feels like the NHL at some degree is the newspaper part of this media industry,” said Doyle. “And then we got basketball being the shiny, new, digital, accessible option for people looking for something new.”