Watching sports has become one of the least relevant parts of professional sports fandom. That may sound like a controversial and even nonsensical statement but upon closer examination it makes perfect sense. Fans are no longer driven to sports because of their dedication to a hometown team but rather to personalities, long-term storylines and the drama embedded in every sports league.
The NBA is the shining example of this burgeoning brand of fandom. Fans are addicted to following players and their carefully crafted images. For young fans, this transition away from hometown solidarity seems obvious. Why spend your entire life following a team solely because they are from your city when you can pick a star player whose personality speaks to you? Why spend years hoping that a historically crummy team will become good when you can follow players and storylines?
In addition to a dedication to superstar players, NBA fans also have a passion for following the overarching narratives in the league. For example, at the end of December, Zach Lowe — widely considered to be the NBA’s most prominent writer — declared that “Anthony Davis trade talk is the biggest story in the NBA.” That's right — the biggest story in the NBA has nothing to do with how a team is playing but rather where a player might play in the future.
The best part about the Anthony Davis drama is how convoluted the situation is and how feverishly NBA fans are following it. Stick with me through the minute details because they really help to display absurdity of new fandom. Davis is 25 years old and widely believed to be a top-five player in the NBA but is playing for the historically and currently forgettable New Orleans Pelicans. In short, Davis has the opportunity to sign a contract extension with the Pelicans this summer. If he signs the extension, he will stay with the Pelicans. If he doesn’t, he will spend one more season with the Pelicans and then he will leave. Well, the Pelicans aren’t stupid — if Davis leaves in two years, then the Pelicans will be left with nothing. However, if the Pelicans trade Davis, they can get a lot of good players in return.
But who will the Pelicans trade Davis to? If Davis doesn’t want to play for the Pelicans, where does he want to play? These are the million dollar questions that every NBA fan is trying to answer. Fans and journalists alike are picking up on all the smallest details such as the fact that Davis and LeBron James have the same agent and that James, who recently became an Los Angeles Laker, got dinner with Davis in LA. In essence, fans are predicting what players will want to do in two years, following details such as who's getting dinner with whom. This can help fans make clear predictions what a player's eventual decision may be.
Tracking dinner plans and the social implications of those plans sounds much more like an article out of People magazine than it does an article from ESPN. The gossip- and drama-filled narrative that is Anthony Davis’s future is not an anomaly. Other popular recent storylines include a player’s mom installing cameras in his house, superstars Kevin Durant and Draymond Green yelling at each other and former teammates calling each other “cupcakes.”
This new wave of fandom is not some kind of fluke — it has clear roots in new communications technology. In the past, fans could only watch the locally broadcasted games and highlights were rarely displayed on television. Simply put, there was no way to live in Ann Arbor, watch Anthony Davis play in New Orleans and learn about his dinner plans. Social media and the internet have made it extremely easy to share highlight clips, watch games from across the country and follow every decision a player makes.
What's more fascinating to me is how this shift in fandom is discussed. Most of the discussion, somewhat unsurprisingly, is about how fans are choosing to watch highlights and follow gossip instead of watching games and why that is costing broadcasters money. The more interesting storyline is this: A shift away from the X's and O's of sports seems like an incredible opportunity for leagues like the NBA to appeal to a new set of fans. Instead of selling high-flying dunks, the NBA can sell America’s favorite things: reality TV and gossip. How the NBA will go about attracting people to juicy gossip — instead of actual basketball games — remains an unanswered question.
So, here is my appeal to anyone who watches reality TV and says they hate sports: the next time you inevitably get thrown into a sports conversation, try to ask about the drama and the rumors and see how things go.
Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org