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Friday, February 24, 2012

What does amateur football do right that professional basketball can't?

On New Year's Day, I stood in a field and got rained on for two hours, in what must have been most rainswept match in the history of football that was somehow never called off for a rain. In a pitch so waterlogged that sliding tackles went on for upwards of 15 metres, Tonbridge Angels drew 1-1 with Bromley FC in a tight, competitive and bloody soaking Blue Square Bet South proverbial six pointer, amidst a day-long rain storm that saw the car park get flooded, the pitch get destroyed, and my shoes get slightly soggy. The link to basketball will follow shortly.

Some 905 of us foolhardy, brave, somewhat heroic souls braved these horrific conditions, and paid our £12 for the privilege of watching a game which neither team won. (And 904 of us manage to do so without being hit by the ball and knocked on our arse. No prizes for guessing who that was.) The travelling Bromley faithful had come all the way from Bromley for the occasion, a distance determined to be 25.5 miles by the AA Route Planner, while half the town of Tonbridge made the walk across town to watch their beloved Angels, just as they did the week before, just as they did the week after, just as they will do next week. All to watch a bunch of amateurs, who double on the side as manual labourers and management consultants, play a determined but unattractive style of football that culminated in nobody actually winning.

The Blue Square Bet South is a semi-professional standard of football that is only on the sixth tier of the English football system. It wasn't exactly a demonstration of how 'the beautiful game' can be when played at its best. Therein, however, lies the pertinence to basketball. Why can a semi-professional, forgettable-unless-you-live-there football team from a small town in Kent compete attendance-wise with the D-League?

It's not something exclusive to the aforementioned town of Tonbridge, either. Indeed, hundreds and hundreds of towns around the country enjoy similar such enclaves and core support, despite their amateur status, and despite the relative unimportance of it all. Without wishing to sound too jingoistic, something is wrong with the American sports model if the Atlanta Hawks, in particularly down years, can't sell as many tickets as the less than stellar Thurrock FC. A team that plays here:

To some, it's a palace.




This isn't the first time that this issue has been addressed on this blog. In an unnecessarily aggressive piece from four years ago, back when unnecessary aggression was the thing, this very similar piece spoke of the same problem highlighted by the same circumstance. And in this piece from last year, when the need for NBA players to take the prospect of playing European basketball seriously became apparent, I wrote at length between the differences between the two experiences. In both cases, certain aspects of the American basketball experience were called into question. They are about to be again, because the problem has only worsened since then.

The reason it is fun to pay to go and stand in a soggy field for two hours is because of what you do when you there. To be sure, you watch the action. But you also sing, cheer, shout, joke, berate, banter, and bond. Someone brings a drum, and whoever pipes up first is the one who determines what song you sing. There's a range, too, from the seminal "Tommy Warrilow's Blue And White Arrrrrrr-my" to the always appealing "Oh Tonbridge Is Wonderful," sung to the tune of "Oh When The Saints Go Marching In" (which relied upon a very liberal understanding of basic syllable recognition, and which also got a bit filthy during the middle eight). You watch the football, no doubt, and you do so with an intense interest in the outcome of every pass, every shot, every tackle, and the score. But you also go there for the experience. And you make the experience for yourself.

With scant few exceptions, this isn't the case in basketball.

The American franchise model, that lacks for promotion and relegation, is entrenched, by design and by precedent. The desire for parity, thirty franchises even in financial resources and team performance, means teams don't grow or shrink. More pertinently, perhaps, it means they can move. And they do. If a franchise does not work in one city, it moves to another. There is very little in the way of deeply rooted local ties, and, because of this, there is very little in the way of hardened, relentless, thick-or-thin support.

As evidence by Tonbridge, Bromley, Thurrock, and countless others, you support your local semi-pro outfit because they're YOUR team, YOUR boys, representing YOUR town. There is pride to be derived from that; there just is. You hope for the club to expand, to get promoted, to grow, to make fairytale cup runs, to win the incredibly prideful local derbies. And if they don't, you'll be there for hope for it again next year. No such comparison exists in the NBA. You might default to supporting the Knicks if you're from New York, but that isn't the same.

That is, in and of itself, fine. It is merely the product of a different culture, and neither culture is better than the other. And there are also reasons for it. It is of course highly relevant to point out that basketball, by its very nature of constant scoring, is not especially conducive to such a style of support. It is difficult to cheer every point as if it is the best when there about 100 of them in every game; it is further difficult to maintain a high level of atmosphere when you're called upon to do so at least 41 times a season. The sheer size of the NBA's schedule dilutes the importance, and thus emotional investment, in any one game.

That said, whilst acknowledging the hefty schedules as a factor, raucous basketball fandom can be done. College games are a testament to this. When there is an institution or a team that is ingrained, getting people to support it passionately is not especially hard. You don't have to have been at Duke for 50 years to wear 50 years of pride on your face, while jumping around like twats in matching ill-fitting t-shirts to the tune of some mighty fine amateur drumming. NCAA games, tournament or otherwise, testify to the validity of obstreperous, strident, bloody loud fandom in a basketball context. And this is not just limited to the amateur game. In basketball crazy countries, such as the Phillipines, making the fan appreciate the game score is not a conscious exercise. It doesn't be. You don't, for example, need to tell these Panathinaikos fans that the result matters, or when they need to cheer. They're waaaaaaaay ahead of you.




The above is a bit of an extreme example, given that such events are often accompanied by mindless indefensible violence. However, there exists a huge middle ground between that and this, one that the NBA ought to lose itself in. (And the NBA has shown before that it can do it. It took a unique set of circumstances - the right team, the right timing, the right city - but this entire series showed what can be done. if we could have at least 60% of that reproduced with regularity, we're making headway.)

It is further important to emphasise the family friendly nature of the NBA, as opposed to the universally un-PC nature of fanatical football support. Of all the songs sung by the Tonbridge faithful on that day, the one with the steadiest rotation was a seminal smash that listed the town's main attributes, specifically the fact that it is full of "tits, fannies and Angels." [Needless to say, the half time entertainment was a let-down.] It was fun. But it is also limited. Something of that nature wouldn't work in an NBA arena. You can't chant a song about Cleveland being full of factories, foreclosures and unemployment, regardless of doing so in jest, because it is not considered acceptable. It is a different culture, one with cheerleaders, arena music and kiss cams. Family friendly PC fun is the name of the NBA's game. That, in itself, is fine. It is not a coincidence that the NBA is a corporate monster.

However, it might also not be a coincidence that the NBA is having problems with attendance. Wider socio-economic factors notwithstanding, not enough people are going to NBA games, and it is not only limited to the franchises struggling on the court. Tickets go for pittance in the hope that when you're there, you'll buy a burger and a beer. Somehow, the game seems secondary. Or tertiary. Or flat out irrelevant. If you can pay that little to go to a game, it's difficult to believe that anyone there is really bothered about how it turns out. For all its emphasis as an "experience," the NBA may have lost sight of the actual game being of primary importance.

The NBA, and by association the D-League, may have reached a point where it can now never achieve this. It's too far gone, it's too bloody expensive, and, moreover, it flat doesn't want to.

But perhaps it ought.

Start with less arena music. Let the culture of singing develop. This might mean less Busta Rhymes snippets, less unicycling ladies, less dancing girls. It might mean less yelling by PA's who try way too damn hard, and it might mean less disco cams. [It might even mean smaller arenas.] These things are all kind of fun.....briefly. At some point, the novelty wears off. Stop before we reach the flares-and-coin-throwing stage, but let's make something happen. The whole idea of making NBA games into borderline circus events with all the scripted entertainment doesn't seem to be working if you can buy tickets for a single cent. Encourage people to make noise, but do so without actually yelling "make some noise!" down the PA at them. The fear that players will wind up playing in a library atmosphere without the deep-seated reliance upon arena music and effects is valid, but surely there must come a time where going to the game to root for a win becomes the most important thing.

If people aren't going to NBA games, maybe they just aren't that fun to go to.

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