What We’re Looking Forward To in 2021


Jonathan A. Knee is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior adviser at Evercore. His next book, “The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans,” is due to be released in September. He recently wrote about Silicon Valley culture for DealBook.

The convergence of racial justice protests, a pandemic that eliminated crowds at arenas and a broadcasting industry increasingly reliant on live sports presents an opportune moment to tell the story of the N.B.A.’s emergence as a cultural and economic force, as some new books try to do. Its new season, its 75th, also started this week.

In 1976, when the league subsumed its rival, the American Basketball Association, the sport was seen as a marginal sport with relatively few televised games. CBS, which then held the rights, routinely broadcast games on tape delay to avoid conflict with popular series like “Dallas” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Today, that would be unthinkable for Turner Broadcasting and ESPN under their $24 billion rights deal that runs through the 2024-25 season and that almost tripled payments under the previous arrangement.

Although the N.F.L. dominates national rights revenue and viewership, the N.B.A. has had far more success internationally. And culturally, the basketball league has long played a greater role in music, fashion and beyond. The stark contrast between its early embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement with the N.F.L.’s initially hostile approach reflected the different demographics not of the players — the athletes in both leagues are overwhelmingly Black — but of the management and ownership groups.

The N.B.A.’s evolution into a central role in media economics and social activism has important implications for business and politics. That makes the journalist Pete Croatto’s history, “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment and the Birth of the Modern N.B.A., timely but frustrating.

The book opens with the 2017 debut performance of the former L.A. Laker Derek Fisher on “Dancing with the Stars” to make a point about basketball’s mainstream relevance, but there are many better examples. Mr. Croatto’s choices may be driven by a lack of access to figures like the former N.B.A. commissioner David Stern, who died this year, or stars like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Mr. Stern’s innovative strategy of highlighting individual personalities (and rivalries, in the case of Bird and Magic) drove greater interest in the game, while Mr. Jordan’s personal partnership with Nike took the N.B.A.’s ambitions to another level.



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