Tonight's NCAA Championship is shaping up to be one of the most watched college basketball games in history. This certainly has a lot to do with the match-up between a perennial winner (Duke) and scrappy underdog (Butler) -- "Cinderella" and "David vs. Goliath" have been mentioned in just about every article I've read on the subject. And though no one will mention it, the game's popularity also has a lot to do with the fact that it will feature two of the least thuggish championship teams in recent memory. Bothsquads are majority white, both schools are academically rigorous, and Duke and Bulter are each known for playing tough defense and having sound fundamentals. Throughout the contest, fans might suspect that the cable just skipped over to ESPN Classic!
Butler fits the role of sympathetic underdog particularly well. Just listen to the humility and dedication to teamwork displayed by its coach and top player.
Allen Iverson wouldn't really fit in with the Bulldogs...
I'll admit that though I enjoyed rooting for Duke when I lived in Durham, I would love to see Butler pull off an epic upset.
And the popularity of tonight's game got me thinking...
There's probably no better example of the spoiled, flamboyant, out-of-control modern athlete than the NBA superstar. And it's been these tattooed ballers who have, much more than their rivals in football and baseball, risen to the status of "global icon."
And yet attempts by Nike to win over the China market by presenting LeBron James as a Kung Fu master come in the context of a league that is quite noticeably in decline. As Forbes reported in December, some 40 percent of NBA franchises lost money last year, and significantly more Americans were watching the NBA Finals in the '70s than in the 2000s (!).
After reading my earlier article on Duke Whiteness, a good friend with a nose for what he calls "behavioral economics" emailed me about this phenomenon:
Let me give you an economic analysis of this based on my experience in business. The huge NBA salaries are nearly entirely dependent on TV revenue, which, in turn, are based on the willingness of affluent white males to watch the NBA. This is the most difficult audience to capture since affluent white males are highly selective in their viewing. Advertisers crave them, however, and thus will pay a super-premium. Ditto for football. This is why ads on TV golf is so expensive though hardly anybody watches it (more follow bowling but advertisers don't care about them). So, when affluent white males tire of watching athletes who look like the picture in the post office, game over. The only alternative, and the NBA understands this full well, is the overseas market. They are more than happy to watch the thuggish NBA. I predict that the NBA will gradually get whiter via overseas imports.
Put simply, middle- and upper-class Americans would get into the NBA if it looked more like Duke vs. Butler.