Monday, May 08, 2006

The NBA Conspiracy

It never fails to rear it's head. Every year about this time people discussing the NBA play-offs invariably discuss the probabilities of teams advancing based on the degree to which the league favors certain franchises or markets. For example, "Detroit is a good team, but I don't think the league would let them get to the Finals again," or "Now that Cleveland has LeBron, the league is more likely to let them into the Finals."

This is of course ridiculous. Never mind how difficult it would be to fix games with any certainty and not have that info leak out in some shape or form. The main reason this is ridiculous is that the risks far outweigh the rewards. If the NBA were ever found to be fixing games, the popularity of the sport would plummet lower than the president's approval ratings. The amount of revenue that would be lost would be staggering. As it is, I'm sure the league wants big market teams like the Lakers in the finals, but they are still a multi-billion dollar entity with the likes of San Antonio or Detroit duking it out for a title.

Which raises the question: Why do so many otherwise rational people buy into these ridiculous theories? Here are some possible explanations:

1) The casual fan doesn't understand how the NBA game is played. Basketball is simple enough on the surface, but like any sport at a high level, there are underlying complexities involved. Whenever I pay attention to color commentators, I invariably learn something new. I've seen hundreds of basketball games in my life, but I am still learning new stuff. That is incredible. The average person, I think, doesn't pay attention to color commentators. Sure, the occasional comment slips through the filters, but I think the vast majority of analysis offered is ignored. The result is that people paradoxically hold two competing beliefs. They believe that there is enough complexity in the game that officials can somehow manipulate outcomes without it being obvious, but they think there is such a minimal amount of complexity that officials can somehow manipulate outcomes. That makes sense if you read it enough times, I promise.

2) The NBA, like most multi-billion dollar entities, has a multi-million dollar marketing department. The purpose of this department is to manipulate public opinion and to appeal to people's emotions over logic. This department also chooses to promote certain players and teams over other players and teams. To the consumer, it may seem counter-intuitive that after all this money spent on marketing, they will leave to chance that the product will live up to their hype. Wouldn't it make more sense to alter the outcomes of games to ensure that the marketing of the league is consistent with the product? Of course, this ignores the bigger picture I spoke of earlier, but on the surface it seems logical.

3) Basketball seems more susceptible than other sports to these rumors. Why? It is still the new kid on the block when it comes to established American sports. Though the NBA has been around for a long time, it wasn't that long ago that the Finals were on tape delay on cable. The culture hasn't had as much of a long term investment in this particular sport. I also think there continues to a more of a cultural divide between athletes and fans in the NBA than in other sports. It's still a hip hop league that markets itself to older white guys. The cultural distance leads to greater suspicion. Finally, to some extent the NBA is a victim of its own marketing success. Other sports have allowed the product to take hold over time on its own merits, while the NBA, starting in the Magic/Larry era and blossoming in the Jordan era, sold itself. Because it's popularity is largely a product of its marketing, it creates more suspicion about the product itself.

And finally:
4) As a fan it is sometimes easier to blame the league rather than your own team. I heard this in 2001 when Scott Williams was suspended in the Eastern Conference Finals. Obviously, the league would rather Iverson and the Sixers make the Finals instead of the Milwaukee Bucks, went the thinking. Of course, if the league had it in for the Bucks they would have fixed the draft lottery last year and we never would have got Andrew Bogut. Unless that too was all part of the league's master plan, as they knew that drafting Bogut would result in the Bucks trading Desmond Mason and thereby decreasing their chances of beating the more favored Pistons in this year's play-offs. That must have been it.


Blogger Heidi said...

i skipped the reading part and went straight to the commenting part. more fun that way.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Dam Insider said...

Azor, you sound like me: "the risk outweighs the reward." That's exactly the explanation. Everything else can be whittled away. Occam's razor applies here.

Why does the general public believe NBA games are fixed more than any other sport? Because the degree to which officiating seems to change from situation to situation is great. For example, at times it seems players are mauled enroute to the basket without getting a call, while later in the game when a defender exhales too forcefully the whistle blows. Now, all I'm saying is it seems this way. One would have to perform a statistical study to prove its existence.

But the bottom line is, "you're right." No one is getting a pass to the NBA finals simply because the league headquarters believe they are more marketable.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I heard Santana Dotson on Bob and Brian insinuate that the Packers lost Super Bowl 32 because they were trying to get Brett Favre to be MVP, but it backfired.

Exhibit A) Favre was miffed that Desmond Howard was chosen the game MVP over himself the year before

Exhibit B) They hardly gave the ball to Dorsey Levens all game so as not to take away from Favre.

Exhibit C) They let the Broncos score at the last minute so Favre could stage a heroic comeback. But that never happen.

Is this plausable? Only if the Packers' secondary and everyone else was in on the plan.

But we need conspiracy theories because we need scapegoats. And the bigger the stakes, the bigger the need for scapegoating. A conspiracy theory implicating the entire league is just a grander version of "we lost because the officials sucked."

So I think your last reason was most on the mark. I think conspiracy theories have to do with a deep-seeded need in the human psyche.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous joliet said...

i do agree with the "bogusness" of the assertation. i do not however agree with the assertation that their popularity would plummet. i didnt stop watching professional wrestling after i found out those games were fixed.

elvis, your disgusting

11:30 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

DI: Mark Cuban actually did a statistical study a few years ago, but he never released it because the league was threatening big time repurcussions if he did. Maybe they're sealed away and ready to be released in 2110.

Tim: I don't think the Packers secondary was the problem in SB32. I think Darius Holland had a one-man conspiracy to suck. Plus, Dorsey had 19 carries, which is plenty.

Geoph: Staged basketball actually does exist in the form of the Harlem Globetrotters. When you see the Globetrotters outdraw the Knicks or Lakers, I think you can will see a new ethos in professional basketball. And do you really refer to pro wrestling matches as "games"??

12:46 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I wasn't saying there was any validity to the claim that SB32 was fixed. I was just using Santana's example to show how this reasoning affects more aspects than just basketball. And I was just saying.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

I like it when you call Santana Dotson "Santana." Remember when I used to sing "Evil Ways" whenever he used to get a tackle? That was before he got popular again. Loved that film strip with the parrot that Mark Furdek showed. I wonder if it's on Youtube.

1:30 PM  

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