The NBA’s Small Market Blues

Jul 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr (left), Kevin Durant (center), and general manager Bob Myers (right) pose for a photo during a press conference after Durant signed with the Warriors at the Warriors Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr (left), Kevin Durant (center), and general manager Bob Myers (right) pose for a photo during a press conference after Durant signed with the Warriors at the Warriors Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

NBA players aren’t flocking to small media markets — but not necessarily for commonly accepted reasons.

Kevin Durant‘s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors revived the old “small media market vs. large media market” debate among NBA owners.

Namely that smaller media markets, including OKC, don’t have the parity to attract marquee players — which opens the door for more attractive markets to form “superteams.”

Of course, the first thing that is discussed is money. Improper fiscal management among some NBA teams notwithstanding, the ballooned 2016-17 salary cap allowed Golden State to throw a lot of money at Durant, as did his other primary suitor, the Boston Celtics.

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However, Durant was an unrestricted free agent and could have made a lot more money over the long term by staying with the Thunder.

What people may not want to admit is that leaving a small media market team is not necessarily about the money, or the greater exposure that comes with a larger market. The rise of social media proves that playing in a small market is not detrimental to the personal and business brands that are more of a priority to players in the new NBA landscape.

Russell Westbrook, who still plays for OKC (for now), has lucrative endorsements including Mountain Dew and Nike, as well as his own clothing and sunglasses lines, and a position as the creative director for luxury jeans brand True Religion. Being in Oklahoma has not hurt his branding at all.

It didn’t hurt Durant either, who also has a sneaker deal with Nike, though his endorsement profile is not as high as Westbrook’s.

Small media markets such as Oklahoma City and San Antonio tend to be focused on one or two particular industries (primarily oil in OKC, and the military in San Antonio). With such industry specification comes a relative lack of diversity, when compared to a major metropolitan city or area such as New York, San Francisco, or even Dallas or Houston. Not only a relative lack of racial diversity, but also of experiences and cuisines. The mindset is often blue-collar and straightforward.

When a celebrity, especially a professional athlete, plays in a small-market city, that athlete lends a broader relevancy of that city to the world at large–especially a marquee athlete such as Durant. This engenders an understandable sense of pride; kind of like the most popular kid in high school dating one of the nerds. All eyes are on you for a change, and it’s a good thing.

This is why Durant’s exit, as well as those of other players from smaller markets over the years, is so painful to a fan base.

When the popular kid breaks up with the nerd, there is a fear of fading back into irrelevancy. For some, going back to that place is unacceptable once you’ve had a taste of popularity and acceptance.

As a result, small markets tend to lend an overinvolvement in local celebrity lives, to the point that boundaries are blurred and celebrities are perceived as an extension of the people. Fans’ desires will be celebrity’s desires, even if the truth is contrary to those desires.

Case in point: a week or so after Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs announced his retirement, the mayor of San Antonio, Ivy Taylor, declared a Tim Duncan Day in the city.

Despite the obvious fact that Duncan retired in his preferred, under-the-radar way (which included a voluntary (*gasp*) final interview  on an independent radio channel based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, instead of a mainstream media outlet), Taylor decided that “Tim Duncan Day” had little, if anything, to do with his preferences at all.

“Tim may not be comfortable with all the attention, but I do think he deserves it,” Taylor told News 4 San Antonio. “It will allow fans everywhere to show him just how much he means to us, to our City and to the sports world.”

Translation: we, the fans, want what we want, and we don’t care what you, the celebrity, wants, even though we claim an event is all about you.

Duncan, true to form, was not present for any of these activities, nor has he issued any sort of public statement regarding this local…holiday? Day of remembrance?

(Sidebar: this is further proof that despite “knowing” Duncan for the 19 seasons he played in the Alamo City, the mayor and other denizens didn’t know him at all. They couldn’t have, for pulling something like this. But I digress.)

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  • This is why small markets can’t have nice things, including professional sports franchises. In a larger market, it’s easier for a celebrity to hide in plain sight. There are not only other celebrities around, but the locals are less pressed about their presence because it’s more the norm than the outlier.

    Seeing Jay-Z come into a Starbucks in New York, for example, would be met with a yawn instead of a frantically tweeted selfie — complete with excitement-oriented emoticons — with him in the background, sipping on his coffee (and if such a tweet happened, it would probably be by a tourist).

    Larger markets also tend to have more than one professional sports franchise (here in Atlanta, we have NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS teams–as well as the headquarters of Turner Network, which owns Bleacher Report and the TNT, TBS, CNN, and NBA TV television stations), so it’s not as jaw-dropping to see one walking down the street, or shopping in a grocery store, or dining at a local establishment.

    Atlanta was already known for its music industry presence, so we are used to seeing singers and rappers. Plus, there is a burgeoning film industry here (including reality TV shows), so seeing famous actors around town is becoming more commonplace as well.

    Smaller markets? Not so much. What should be a commonplace occurrence suddenly becomes social media fodder. Such adoration creates an environment in which it becomes hard to breathe, let alone live your life.

    Durant’s decision to leave OKC may have had more to do with wanting to be less of a mascot. There is a certain burden that comes with playing in a small market: not only are you a professional athlete, but you are also seen as a savior. Over time, that burden of so many expectations becomes harder to bear.

    (And let’s not forget that Durant never chose to play in Oklahoma. He was drafted by the larger-market Seattle Super Sonics, which was hijacked by Clay Bennett, et al — and abetted by former NBA commissioner David Stern — to Oklahoma).

    More hoops habit: New York Knicks: 2016 Offseason Grades

    As much as current NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants league parity, it’s not going to happen. It’s not always about the money; for some players, peace of mind — and being around more like minds — is more important.