When LeBron James described NFL team owners as having a “slave mentality” on Friday, it was his bluntest public swipe to date. Sure, James called President Donald Trump a “bum” last year, but that was just a tweet. Last week’s comments, aired on James’ HBO show The Shop, were sharp and unambiguous.
James was referring to the NFL’s new anthem policy, which required players to stand for the national anthem or earn their teams a fine. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the new protocol without consulting the NFL Player’s Association, which sparked furore among players, and thus the policy lasted just two months before being canned. The NBA, meanwhile, insisted its players follow a similar policy, yet it didn’t receive close to the same criticism.
James’ comments highlighted the division of the NFL and the unity of the NBA and, underneath, the data shows the two leagues going in opposite directions.
The NBA’s stock rose further on Tuesday when it showcased its top players across 12 hours of programming, and marked 10 years since the league increased its Christmas Day schedule to five games. In that time, basketball has become synonymous with 25 December, similar to the way Thanksgiving would feel empty without NFL football.
Still, the NFL’s own domestic fanbase is undeniable. Few other sports can lure in the realm of 100 million Americans to watch its crown jewel event, the Super Bowl, even if it is just for the highly anticipated half-time music performance and advertisements.
With a goldmine at his feet, Goodell hasn’t stood pat. His oversight of the league’s growth overseas has been an unmitigated success, as annual regular-season games have consistently sold out Wembley Stadium since 2007.
But even with its new international audiences, the NFL lags far behind the global reach of the NBA, whose footprint in the world’s most populous countries is unmatched.
The differences between the two sports aren’t as contentious in other countries as they are in America, and may boil down to accessibility. Basketball can be, and often is, played individually with just a ball and a basket. Football, on the other hand, requires expensive protective equipment. This is why, at its rawest level, the NBA has decades of globalism behind it that the NFL doesn’t.
And the NBA’s received a lot of help in its global mission. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, for example, has inducted international pillars of the game over multiple generations, such as Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon who won back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, the Chinese 7ft 6in Yao Ming who burst into the league in 2002, and German Dirk Nowitzki who, currently in his 21st season for the Dallas Mavericks, is a sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer.
Then there’s the Olympics, where basketball has been included on every occasion since 1936. Perhaps the most iconic moment for the sport took place at the 1992 games in Barcelona. After the IOC lifted all restrictions on professional athletes participating, the US men’s basketball team — also known as the ‘Dream Team’ — won gold behind the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. American football, meanwhile, hasn’t featured at the olympics since its cameo in 1932.
The influence of the 1992 games is still felt today. Basketball is treated like a second religion in Lithuania and many other countries, and is why the likes of Cameroonian Joel Embiid, Serbian Nikola Jokic, Australia’s Ben Simmons and Greek MVP-candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo are among the game’s best young stars, and represent a future the NFL simply doesn’t have.
So far this season, the NFL has featured 52 players from 20 countries, which works out at approximately 3% of the league’s total players. In comparison, the NBA has seen 105 foreign-born players from 41 countries play which, because of its fewer teams and players per team, represent roughly 23% of the league.
The NBA’s popularity transcends the court. Whereas NFL players are hidden under a helmet and are one of 22 players on the field at the same time, NBA stars are accompanied by just nine others on the court at any one time. On Christmas Day, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant were captured on TV for lengthy periods of time as they battled against each other, their personalities on full show for millions of viewers.
It’s part of the reason some NBA teams have garnered online followings into the tens of millions. Taking into account followers from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, NBA teams dominate the NFL’s.
The future will certainly worry the NFL. Whether it’s the controversy of the national anthem, the league’s lax stance on domestic violence, or its longtime denial of the link between football and brain damage, there’s no question the NFL’s reputation has been impaired.
A Gallup poll last year found that pro football’s popularity had decreased among ever major demographic, most notably white men, its largest subgroup.
With all that said, the NFL still dominates the TV ratings battle in America. Rule changes protecting offensive players have led to a scoring explosion across the league, and games such as the LA Rams’ 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs will have done wonders to draw fans back in.
In Week 14 of the NFL regular-season, for example, 25m people watched the Dallas Cowboys defeat the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. In comparison, the 2018 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, averaged less than 18m viewers.
After a two-year decline in TV ratings, the NFL appears to have steadied the ship and audiences are up this season. But as the NBA’s reach and popularity continue to catch up, there will be plenty of more storms to weather for the NFL.