Over recent months and weeks certain NBA players have been making headlines by demonstrating their frustration and disdain towards the media.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s star point guard Russell Westbrook has been at the forefront of this ‘movement’, refusing to answer questions posed by the media, famously answering with “next question” or “not sure”. The Golden State Warriors’ two-time finals MVP forward Kevin Durant bitterly called out a journalist by name at a press conference for writing a perfectly-warranted story speculating about his free agent intentions this upcoming offseason. Even the San Antonio Spurs’ widely-respected head coach Greg Popovich has had his fiery moments over the years.
Some level of tension between NBA athletes and media is presumably as old as the league itself, but the recent defiance seen seems to be trending in the wrong direction and becoming viewed not only as acceptable, but comical, at least by certain players.
As a professional in the sport media world responsible for working with and interviewing athletes, surfing in my case, I can sympathize with what the media is going through. Sometimes athletes can make it difficult to get that sound bite that you need oh-so-badly to finish your story.
It’s the media’s problem, not the players’, right? Well, I don’t think so.
My message to these NBA players is the following: Please stop disrespecting the media. You need them as much as they need you.
You can thank the fans (and media) for your eight figure salary
I strongly urge players to not forget that those (tens of) millions of dollars per year that they are raking in did not appear out of thin air. That money comes from somewhere, and the root of much of it is dictated by the fans, who give players their popularity. Fans make players like Kevin Durant a household name. If you have no fans that are willing to watch your games, then there is no business model, no league, and no jobs playing professional basketball.
The role of the fan should not be underestimated. If you ever find yourself in the unlikely situation of conversing with a die-hard US field hockey fan, ask him/her what kind of salaries the players are earning and you will see the clear-cut correlation between number of fans and revenue.
And how does the media fit into this equation? The media is the middleman between the players and the fans. The fan that just bought a Durant jersey for $110, attended a game to see him play for $150, and consumed endless amounts of revenue-generating TV commercials while watching his games at home all year would like to know what is on Kevin Durant’s mind. Fans don’t need to know a player’s deepest, darkest secrets, just their thoughts on the game or free agency. Is that too much to ask for?
A fan doesn’t have a way to ask their favorite player a question directly, so it’s the media’s job to act as the broker and feed that information. Simple enough, right?
More media = more sponsorship $
And how about the endorsement deals? For the superstars, this is where the money is really at.
Why do you think Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas (etc.) shell out millions of dollars to have NBA athletes represent their brands? This is not because you have a killer crossover or can bait refs into calling fouls with the best of them (I won’t name any names), but because you create value for their brand. You make headlines, grab attention, and mold their brand image. Little kids will see you wearing shoes that they will beg their parents to buy. Brands will see the large amount of people that you reach through media around the globe, and think, “Hey, how can we expose our brand to more people? This looks like a good investment.”
Now, for those players who don’t want to talk to media and would like the FCC to censor their name from every online article, newspaper, TV show, and radio segment, go ahead and see how much your endorsement deal will be worth as you disappear from the public eye. Not as much, I would bet. The media plays a significant role in creating the value that makes these deals attractive to brands.
To give an example in my line of work, when I am reporting back to sponsors, every time said sponsor is mentioned or appears on social media, online editorial articles, or TV features is considered value. I sum it all up and essentially say, “Look, your sponsorship was worth it.” This is accomplished through an array of tools and reporting methods over weeks or even months, but that’s the gist of it.
The age-old line from players to media is that they just want to “play ball”. I would counter that and explain to players that there are plenty of pick-up games going on at local parks around the country that would be more than happy to name an NBA-caliber player team captain. There’s a place to play without the limelight. No media will bother you. No media will create value for you. Oh, furthermore, let’s not forget this deal doesn’t include the mansion, sports cars, health insurance, first class flights and so on.
Where do you draw the line?
Of course, there is a flip side to this coin.
There has to be a clear line drawn between player privacy and media availability.
The idea of a locker room media scrum, as is typical in professional sports in the USA, is a gross invasion of privacy in my opinion. Media should be restricted to press conferences or designated engagements, not disturbing naked players as they come out of the shower.
In the surfing world, we don’t let media into the athletes’ private area, unless on a special basis. At the end of the day, the players are people just like me and you, people with emotions. They can get fed up and succumb to their emotions if someone pushes the wrong button. I can only imagine what this pressure and stress can feel like.
From past experience interviewing surfers, I understand how difficult it can be to get a good interview from an athlete, especially an athlete on the losing side. I oftentimes try to avoid interviewing losing competitors all together due to strong emotions and, more often that you would think, flowing tears. An angry or sad athlete often times is not ready to give a comprehensible answer to your question. An athlete that you can count on to give concise, digestible answers is a gold mine. Who is Stephen Curry for 800, please?
NBA media and players are not afforded that luxury of picking and choosing their spots because media have to cover a certain team or player, regardless of the outcome, and players are contractually obligated to participate in press conferences. This presents a challenge for both sides and can create situations where neither party truly wants to be speaking with the other.
I also understand that media is not the be-all and end-all source of a player’s value and that this is a big simplification of the inner business workings of the NBA, but media certainly plays a key role in that conversation. If you are a brand sponsoring an athlete, every time a photo of that player with your logo appears in a trending article or national news, that is return on investment. This is how the media world goes ’round.
What it all means
All that said, athletes who have a good PR team know how to leverage media to their benefit. An athlete that knows how to pitch their story to media and make their name more well-known can punch above their weight as far as how valuable they are to a brand. A super star athlete can also diminish or under-utilize their potential value when being a jackass with the media or just ignoring them completely.
So, for the benefit of the fans, the league, the media, the sponsors, the teams, and the players, I strongly urge NBA players to be pleasant with the media. I am not encouraging players to be fake, and give cookie cutter responses to questions, but be reasonable, and realize that the journalist that seems to be bugging you is actually a cog in the machine that makes it possible for you to earn your living shooting hoops. And don’t forget, behind that journalist’s question there is an eager, paying fan waiting for the answer.
Feature photo: Alonzo Adams / AP