(Beckley’s grappling with what big markets are, while I grapple with how they influence us)
LeBron, Carmelo, and Deron left plucky cities, as rumors of future departures wafted about. Who’s next to go? Chris Paul? Dwight Howard? It seems today’s ballers view small markets as a rest stop before a destination. It’s a selfish lot, our athletes. Coddled by Yes Men, they float on clouds of whispered sweet nothings, oblivious to terrestrial small town pain. Aye, there goes my monocle into the champagne flute. Before I faint, let us lament how our once gritty, humble, olden basketball culture is dead. I blame AAU. No wait, is it the lack of college? Wait again: Don’t we view every generation as more narcissistic than the last? Perhaps these guys are logically responding to a larger trend.
In the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, Americans marched towards individual pods, conscripted to lives of isolated media consumption. We were destined to run from each other, to ensconce ourselves in virtual tech bubbles. Jeff Bezos won the Time Magazine “Man of the Year,” because Amazon.com helped people chase niches. Soon after, iPod-adorned subway passengers looked newly aloof–in a world where chat rooms still claimed relevance.
That Internet was a socially-balkanizing agent, whereas this one connects us to a bigger picture. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the most recent “Man of the Year,” and Twitter carries the zeitgeist on a nightly basis. Droves are tweeting “big events,” boosting TV ratings by the word of mouth vested in their fingers. Shared experience is trumping the novel pursuit.
For a Salon.com article, I once asked Neilsen Sports Vice President Steven Master about social media’s impact on games:
“One of the drivers behind increased viewing is that people are online more. Sports probably more so than any category, is all about multiplatform.”
So, web culture is animating sports culture. At All Star Weekend, David Stern giddily cited how many Facebook “likes” his players and league had. He appears to see it as an engine and reflection of the what masses enjoy. I would agree.
When we talk about how social media is a democratizing agent–literally in Egypt’s case–we rarely parse sports implications. If the web can amplify the voice of a people, how does that impact fandom? I’m positing that bigger markets are gaining even greater relevance. The New York media structure was always influential, but now millions of New Yorkers act as a civilian media. Thomas Friedman thought the Internet had rendered the world “flat,” untethered to regionalism. I’d argue that it’s causing regions to matter more than ever before, that technology is a force multiplier for the biggest fan bases–League Pass be damned.
Basketball writers are familiar with the roving reader armies who would campaign for Derrick Rose or Kobe Bryant. Fanbase web presence helps explain why Derrick Rose is the leading MVP candidate and why Amar’e is in the conversation (Ewing, you played in the wrong era). A similar attribution could make sense of Russell Westbrook’s low profile, and Tim Duncan’s lack of deserved plaudits.
In a recent episode of FX’s Lights Out, a champion boxer waxes on about how he’ll be remembered in 100 years. It struck me that he was voicing the ultimate goal of sport–to “become legendary,” as Nike puts it. Small markets are an obstacle to this grand pursuit, perhaps more so than ever before. While I’m not sure that athletes chart big social trends, I am sure they’re sensitive to who gets attention among peers. It’s easy for we fans to deride big-market glory-chasing as “selfish,” but we’re forgetting that glory is paramount to what we’re watching. We’re also forgetting that players aren’t pitting themselves against us, though people in small cities certainly felt slighted. Carmelo Anthony might be going to New York so as to seek out more fans, not fewer.
Today’s “players vs. the people” narrative ignores how players are actually flocking to where the people live. Writers keep blaming World Wide Wes for this phenomenon, when the World Wide Web could be our real culprit.