Check out the Spurs-Grizzlies Western Conference Finals TV ratings so far. It’s brutal. Least viewed Conference Finals since 2007. And who played in that one? Yep, those same old Spurs.
One of the better-watched NBA Finals since MJ involves the Spurs, actually. Yes, those Spurs. The unpopular ones. In 1999, San Antonio routed the Knicks in front of a large national audience, a far larger audience than would ever see either team again. New York was the main draw, but this was San Antonio’s launching pad for a decade of renown. Many forget, but young Tim Duncan was lithe and quick–not unlike young Kevin Garnett. Before he was Shaq-branded as “The Big Fundamental,” Duncan was something else entirely. He was so many exciting possibilities. He was a shot-swatting power forward in a center’s body who could pass like a guard. As a rookie, he scored 32 points in his first career playoff game as the announcers lost their minds. It would have seemed inconceivable, back then, that his glory would play to crickets.
It’s almost remarkable that the Spurs haven’t caught on after so much time. Eventually, a brand has to build, especially if it’s synonymous with success. Much of catching on nationally is just about cluing the public into who you are in the first place. Appear in the playoffs, thrive in the playoffs, and you have yourself some cachet. Familiarity equals brand recognition and brand recognition brings the ratings. Peyton Manning in the playoffs? “Let’s watch, I am familiar with that person,” so says the casual fan brain.
But, after 16 years, the San Antonio Spurs have failed to prompt that thought process. Since the least-viewed-ever NBA Finals in 2007, the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triumvirate hasn’t grown in fame or stature, apparently.
That those Finals came against LeBron James is notable because it served as James’ introduction to a whole lot of casual fans. Back then, not too many Americans wanted to tune in for some kid futilely “fighting” Goliath. Some years passed, LeBron became a better known figure. Many grew to love him, and later, to despise him. As a consequence, Game 1 of last year’s Finals drew the best number since Shaq and Kobe in 2002. Miami’s 2011 Game 6 demise drew the best Game 6 number since Reggie Miller fell to those same Lakers in 2000.
It can’t all be explained away by “small market.” The Green Bay Packers have parlayed victories into status as a “public team,” despite their small market. You could say that basketball is different, but the Thunder are a consistent ratings draw. The public watches Durant and Westbrook like they play in Madison Square Garden.
So what the hell is it? Why are we at a point where basketball’s best franchise also might be terrible for the sport’s bottom line, should this success continue? I’ve listed a few theories.
Big Man Bias
We like to watch the lil’ fella. Spurs-Warriors actually drew far better early ratings than Spurs-Grizzlies in a higher round. Some of that is because the Bay has more people than Memphis, but I also suspect Stephen Curry’s influence. People enjoy watching a normal-sized person go up against titans (See: Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, and oddly, not Chris Paul). Tony Parker should qualify as a draw, but the Spurs are in large part defined by Tim Duncan. Big men don’t sell sneakers, and Duncan certainly doesn’t sell himself. That brings us to our next theory.
The Spurs Hate You
Okay, maybe not “hate you.” But they’re certainly, publicly indifferent. I once tried to write a (positive) piece on a specific Spurs topic, and found the swift access rejection to be a little surprising. I shouldn’t have been too disappointed, I suppose, considering how Chris Ballard and Joe Posnanski have both written about the difficulties of getting access to the Spurs.
There’s been a long line of national writers in town looking for stories, and seemingly none of them leave with info they came for.
— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) May 22, 2013
Duncan virtually never speaks to media outside of what’s necessary, and Popovich has absolutely zero interest in talking about himself.
— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) May 22, 2013
This isn’t a criticism, just an observation: The Spurs are collectively aloof, and secretive enough to contribute to their own lack of popularity. They shroud themselves in camouflage, and we’ll never know the reasons because they’ll never tell us. This is why the familiarity of seeing the Spurs for near-20 years doesn’t matter to fans. Fans don’t feel like they know these guys in the first place. I’m enough of a basketball nerd to have favorable impressions of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan. But to many, the Spurs are an opaque borg-like entity, devoid of feeling or free will.
The Spurs Make Basketball About Something You Hate
Generally speaking, basketball strategy pieces don’t tend to generate a lot of hits. Some writers can pull off delving deeply into O’s and X’s, but it’s incredibly difficult to get readers to take that dive with you. I used to think that readers eschewed this (to me, fascinating) information because it’s too complicated and they’re busy and Dancing With the Stars is on. I’ve come to feel that this is only part of the picture.
The problem with basketball strategy is that many hoops lovers don’t want basketball to be about basketball strategy. This sport is about individual accomplishment. How many rings does Kobe have? Can he catch Michael? Is LeBron the new MJ? How does he prove he’s a “winner” with “killer instinct”? This way of viewing the NBA conceives of team success as resultant from individual will or genius. It’s a world apart from appreciating how San Antonio’s Motion Weak offense probes defenses till someone like Danny Green gets an open 3.
The Spurs are innovators, the first to grasp the corner 3′s potential. But, in that innovation, they’ve learned to chuck hero ball for a more collectivist approach. Suddenly, basketball isn’t about Kobe draining a game winner because he’s “an assassin.” Basketball is about executing a superior strategy, with even the best players serving more as cogs than deciders.
The Spurs Were Branded
Ever try to get rid of an unseemly nickname? It’s tough, isn’t it? I’m not sure as to the origins of “The Spurs are Boring,” but damned if the trope isn’t sticky. Perhaps Shaq’s framing of Duncan as “fundamental” has done much to dissuade folks from ever paying attention. It’s a shame because the Spurs create new ways of playing more than they honor old ways of playing. They’re more wildly creative than fundamentally sound.
Either way, the meme has stuck. The San Antonio Spurs have lost a national election that they never tried to win in the first place. For them, the journey’s been fantastic. So much winning, so much respect around the league. For the NBA, their success has been TV ratings poison and a real threat to league popularity. I’m not interested in how the Spurs feel about it. I’m interested in why Joe Sports Fan doesn’t feel anything for them. Actually, that’s a lie. I am interested in how the Spurs feel about it, but they’d never tell me. I’ll probably have better luck getting Joe’s side of the story.