LaVar Ball and the NBA: Attention arbitrage in an entertainment monoculture

On knowing your role; showbusiness; and entertainers who got to entertain

I’m sure you’ve heard of LaVar Ball, the attention-glutton worst-kinda-sports-dad-you-could-ever-image. He’s a media imperialist who grabbed the sportsworld’s spotlight in much the same way the Kardashians did reality TV and Trump did politics. Naturally, he’s leveraging his geurilla celebrity to not only promote his three sons’ professional basketball careers, but also build a business brand.

I’m going to skip over a lot of the details of LaVar’s most recent controversy, because it’s been well-covered and my interest lies not in the debate about LaVar’s decorum, but rather in the broader implications for media…

Sports media and substance

Steve Kerr, Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors, recently bemoaned LaVar Ball’s shock-and-awe tactics — and the media’s willingness to cover them. Kerr had this to say:

“This is the world we live in now… I’ve talked to people in the media and said ‘Why do you guys have to cover that guy.’ They say ‘We don’t want to. Nobody wants to. But our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings and the readership’…

“That’s true in politics and entertainment and now sports. It doesn’t matter if there’s any substance involved with an issue. It’s just ‘Can we make it really interesting’… It’s a societal issue. It’s been going on for many, many years, and it’s really, I think, invading the sports world now.”

Of course, I agree with the spirit of what consensus has to say about modern media — although a lot of the dynamics are misunderstood. Yes, fake news, misinformation, cyberabuse, and a race-to-the-bottom are undesirable. I’m sure Kerr has said as much himself, but that’s not what Kerr is saying here, rather, he’s saying media should have “substance.” That’s where he loses me. That’s where Kerr, Rick Carlisle, and their contemporaries make it sound like they misunderstand not only “the world we live in now,” but also their own roles therein.

I’m not picking on Kerr for this one soundbite, because he’s a generally thoughtful guy, but this line-of-thinking defies Kerr’s mission, the NBA’s mission, and a huge segment of the media’s mission. After all, the NBA is in the entertainment business, so what qualifies as “substance” — and what about LaVar Ball doesn’t?

Sport’s special place in society

Yes, from music to movies to sports, so much of pop culture has historically provided us more than just idle entertainment — it’s also provided us, well, culture. This sports stuff ages better than a vintage wine. As time passes, it becomes part of cultural mythology and history. In terms of historical significance, some of it is pari passu with anything anyone learns in a textbook or a classroom.

In other words, sports aren’t just another form of ephemeral entertainment, they serve a greater purpose. Sports aren’t a fad or a style; sports are far more evergreen. They’re not a meme with a one week half-life; they’re The Miracle on Ice thriving as a symbol of national pride 38-years hence. (To be sure, the value of sports content is a lot like a car: The second you buy it and drive it off of the dealer’s lot, its value depreciates meaningfully; however, beyond live games and highlights, back-catalog of sports content has a far higher terminal value than most other genres of entertainment — and that terminal value can get amortized over decades.)

When you re-read Steve Kerr’s comment about LaVar Ball’s bombast (above), you really get a sense of that special pedestal society has reserved for sports. From that point-of-view, you can empathize with Kerr, swooping-down in defense of that goodwill — preserving the NBA’s special place in society: ‘If this clown is getting coverage, all of the good things happening in and around the NBA are not, and I don’t want our time-honored brand associated with his circus.’

Steve Kerr

After all, Kerr himself was a successful NBA player before he became a successful coach. He balled alongside the consensus GOAT, Michael Jordan, in a bygone era that everyone remembers with a nostalgic twinkle-in-the-eye.

And that’s all incontrovertible — at least as far as I’m concerned. But even though sport is evergreen entertainment, it’s entertainment nonetheless. That’s an important observation, not because of semantics, but because of the role sport plays…

Marginal growth and brand dilution

If you’re the NBA, you’re constantly asking yourself this:

‘What job do our fans hire us to do?’

Your answer is this:

‘Real, serial entertainment.’

That’s as quickly and pithily as you can describe it, but such generality is the proper calibration in this case, for reasons discussed below. For now, just note how crowded a space this genre of entertainment is — from YouTube stars to Snapchat/Instagram Stories to GoPro homebrews, etc. (After all, the rules of engagement are different in the modern era of media abundance, as opposed to the bygone era of scarcity.)

The NBA has already reserved a nice allocation of its fans’ time and attention, but The Association wants to — needs to — grow. Broadly, the NBA can achieve growth by two means:

  1. Expand its base (i.e. bigger audience);
  2. Increase walletshare among its base (i.e. more of your preexisting audience’s money, time, and attention)

The NBA has done a fantastic job accomplishing both of those initiatives, with its resurgence led by an embrace of the internet and social media that’s the envy of any business — the sports world and beyond. But here’s the competitive reality of those growth strategies:

  1. If you’re expanding beyond your base, you’re by definition competing with other forms of entertainment that already have your marginal audience’s attention;
  2. If you’re increasing walletshare among your base, you’re by definition competing with other forms of entertainment that already have your core audience’s spend

In both circumstances, the NBA has to adapt its brand to pry incremental audience out of someone else’s hands. Whether or not you, the consumer, are already part of the NBA’s base, you’ve already decided how much (or how little) money, time, and attention you want to allocate unto the NBA’s niche. Your chips are down. If that NBA niche wants more from you, it has to do something markedly different to lure you away from wherever else you’re currently invested. I discussed these dynamics in “The Four Winds of Modern Media”:

“That right there is the thing about all the content outside our most specific interests: the stuff we don’t want or need is perfectly substitutable; it’s fungible; and therefore it can usually be replaced with something free of charge — assuming we even have the bandwidth for it in the first place… [If you’re expanding your base, you need] to adapt [your] incredibly niche content into something more conducive to a wider audience, which recursively marginalizes [your] product.”

It’s a difficult trick to attract marginal demand without disenfranchising your core, but the NBA appears to have struck a good balance there — so churn is not the issue here. The zero-sum nature of competition is the issue: When the NBA wins marginal growth, it comes at the expense of some other entertainer. As a mature brand, the NBA has already reached such critical mass that it’s now competing for marginal mindshare against marginal brands like Trump, the Kardashians, Logan Paul, etc. (Don’t read this as conflating those brands either; I’m only saying that the consumer budget for entertainment is finite — and “mindshare” might be the wrong wordchoice 😊)

Steve Kerr might not like it; I might not like it; you might not like it; but that’s the NBA’s basis of competition for its next dollar of revenue. That’s also the meaning of this article’s title about “knowing your role.” The NBA is a massive entertainment enterprise. It’s still as culturally important as ever. To its old, core base, it’s still as evergreen a form of entertainment as ever. At the same time, to its new, marginal base, it’s as ephemeral a form of entertainment as any other. For these newcomers, being top-of-mind matters, therefore beating the Kardashians to the top of the pop culture feed matters — and LaVar Ball delivers.

No harm, no foul

Steve Kerr is a cog in that machine. ESPN and the media, who get lambasted for providing LaVar coverage, are cogs in that machine. They all benefit from the entertainment… and I really don’t see who’s worse off for it.

Kerr seems to imply that the “societal issue” is some death spiral toward idiocracy, but that’s an availability heuristic: The reality is that society is just reallocating its entertainment budget among equally frivolous vehicles, but those frivolous vehicles haven’t stolen attention from traditionally worthwhile ones — look at our historical time spent reading printed books alone.

Nobody has to like LaVar Ball or his means. In fact, go ahead and actively dislike him and his means. He’s a loud-mouth, a trash-talker, a showman, an entertainer. He’s not a misogynist, a bigot, a bully, an abuser. Furthermore, no parent has to block their children’s eyes or cover their children’s ears here. (I said I wouldn’t get into the decorum debate, but this feels like a necessary disclaimer.)

I am not saying that ‘all news is good news.’ What I’m saying is that LaVar Ball is bringing net new fans into the funnel without repelling the old ones. He’s attracting attention to a business that, yes, makes money from eyeballs and advertising. But, that business has a lot of other revenue streams too — not to mention a lot of other stakeholders — which means the NBA’s brand of entertainment is structurally incentivized to maintain the standards its sustainability depends on.

The critiques of LaVar Ball and the media’s coverage of him misunderstand the business they’re in — and the roles they play.

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