It’s the year of small markets in the NBA, but what does this mean?

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 5: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks on May 5, 2021 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA Conference Finals are just beginning on both sides of the playoffs. This is money time for the NBA; its biggest teams are playing on the biggest stage, drawing massive viewing audiences. Except for this year, it’s going a little different. Instead of seeing teams like the Lakers, Warriors, and Celtics, we have teams like the Suns, Bucks, and Hawks. This has been the year for small markets in the NBA, but what does this mean for the league?

The 2021 Playoffs

Jun 22, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game winning shot against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half during game two of the Western Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the past, small-market teams have found great success so far in the playoffs this year. The Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, and Los Angeles Clippers are the 4 teams remaining currently in the playoffs. Not a single NBA mainstay is in the conference finals this year.

Phoenix is the 12th largest TV market in the United States, according to Station Index. The Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler Metropolitan area has an estimated population of 5,059,909, the 10th largest in the US. A decent-sized city, but Phoenix is still considered a small market in the NBA.

The Clippers are hard to rank because they play second fiddle to the Lakers in Los Angeles. L.A. ranks 2nd in both TV market size and metropolitan area population. But that doesn’t say everything about the Clippers because most of that audience is more interested in the Lakers. The Clippers are by definition a big market team, but in reality, they play a small market role in the NBA when it comes to TV audiences.

The Atlanta Hawks might be the biggest market out of the four teams remaining. The Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta Metro area ranks 9th in the US with an estimated population of 6,107,906. The Atlanta TV market ranks 8th in the US according to Station Index. The Hawks have a similar market size to phoenix, albeit slightly larger. This also makes them a small/mid-market team.

The Bucks are a legitimate small market team. The Milwaukee TV audience ranks 35th in the US according to Station Index. The Milwaukee-Waukesha Metro area has a population of 1,577,676, which is 40th in the US. This makes them one of the smallest markets in the NBA.

Based on these rundowns, the teams don’t seem like super small markets outside of Milwaukee. But the truth is, mid-market teams, don’t exist in the NBA. There are a few juggernauts, and the rest are all small-market teams when it comes down to it. This is because the NBA has done a poor job marketing most of its teams to its mainstream audiences.

A fundamental issue

Jan 30, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the second quarter at TD Garden.
 Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If we’re honest, it shouldn’t even be a big deal that small-market teams are the last ones standing in the playoffs. Look around at other leagues. The Super Bowl this year had Tampa Bay playing against Kansas City. The NHL has seen St. Louis and Tampa Bay make the Stanley Cup Finals in the last two years. Not all sports are dominated by big market teams.

The NBA has been, though. This issue becomes incredibly clear looking back at past finals. We’ll consider the big market teams to be the: 5 northeast teams (Philly, New York, Brooklyn, Boston, and Washington), Lakers, Warriors, Heat, Bulls, Mavericks, and Raptors (with all of Canada as a TV audience, the Raptors are one of the largest markets contrary to popular opinion).

In 2008 the Lakers played the Celtics in the NBA finals; since then, 8 of 26 NBA finalists have been small market teams. If we ignore the 4 appearances by Cleveland with LeBron (does any team with LeBron really count as a small market?), then 84% of finals participants since 2008 have been big market teams. So since 2008, 11 teams (37% of the NBA) have made up 84% of Finals participants. Furthermore, only one of those teams won the Finals (2014 Spurs).

Many people consider 1979, the first season with the three-point line, the beginning of the modern NBA. So let’s look back to then. The numbers lean a little bit further in favor of small-market teams, but not by much. Since 1979 small market teams (minus LeBron’s Cavs) have made up 32% (27 of a possible 82) Finals participants. Only 11 of those teams won their matchup. So small market teams since 1979 account for a measly 27% of finals winners. Considering they make up nearly 2/3 of the league, this feels a bit wrong.

What’s causing the issue?

Jun 19, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer stands with forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and forward Khris Middleton (22) after defeating the Brooklyn Nets in overtime in game seven in the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, money is a huge hurdle facing small market teams. This issue can be addressed in ways but is also a natural thing in sports and may be hard to fix. Big market teams have a huge advantage when it comes to money. They often have owners who are willing to spend extra money when the team needs it. The luxury tax is a huge part of building a contending team, and more often than not, small-market owners aren’t willing to pay up.

Teams from big markets such as New York and L.A. are also infinitely more popular than small-market teams, which means they earn a lot of revenue that way as well. Ticket prices at the arenas are inevitably higher; fans are willing to spend more money, it all begins to add up. The bottom line is: for most big market teams, money isn’t an issue when trying to build a contender. For small-market teams, it is often an insurmountable hurdle.

Small market teams also have a hard time keeping players from leaving. This is the other issue facing any small market. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen KD move from OKC to the Bay Area, LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami, then L.A., and Anthony Davis leaving New Orleans for L.A.

The players can hardly be blamed. Small market teams have such a hard time building a contender around their homegrown stars. Inevitably those stars eventually want to leave and have a tough decision to make. Some stick it out like Giannis right now with his Bucks in the conference finals. But others choose to leave.

So it’s a little bit of a never-ending cycle. Small teams have a hard time building winning teams. But because they can’t build winning teams, their stars leave. Of course, because the stars leave, it is now even harder for the team to win.

This is the problem facing small market teams. It’s hard not to wonder why this doesn’t affect other sports leagues as well.

At the core of the game

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball has always been a superstar league. There are only 5 players on the court at a time, and the 5 best players can play upwards of 75% of the minutes available. For this reason, having one or two superstars is enough to win a title. Singular players have an impact on the game, unlike any other sport.

Just LeBron on your team is enough to make finals trip after a finals trip. One player has a massive impact on the game. For that reason, this is a league that superstars will always dominate. Unfortunately for small markets, the superstars are almost always playing in the big markets.

A quick look at Complex’s top 30 players of all-time list is quite revealing. Out of the top 10, only Tim Duncan spent his whole career on a small market team (San Antonio). Only 2 others (LeBron with the Cavs and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Bucks) spent any time at all on a small market team.

A look at numbers 10-30 holds a little better news for small markets. You see players like Karl Malone (Utah), Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston), and Isiah Thomas (Pistons), who spent virtually their whole careers on small-market teams. But you also see players like Kevin Garnett (Minnesota to Boston) and Kevin Durant (OKC to Golden State), who couldn’t win in their small market and went to a big market for titles.

So yes, the NBA will always be dominated by big markets such as L.A., New York, and Chicago. But there is still a lot the league can do to draw attention to the small markets. Success for small markets in the NBA is considered a problem right now. People worry about the TV ratings dropping or the league losing popularity. Those thoughts have to change, and that’s on the league.

What can the league do?

Apr 19, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) shoots against Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) during the third quarter at Fiserv Forum.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Silver and the NBA need to market their smaller teams better. They’ve always focused on the popularity of the biggest teams and the biggest players. They did a great job with that, and it worked. In the middle of the 2010s, when Lebron was battling the Warriors for NBA supremacy, the league saw huge ratings for NBA finals. For game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals, 30 million Americans were tuned in; that’s 16 percent of US households!

But the NBA has still never reached the highs of the 90s. Michael Jordan brought the league to ridiculous heights. The 1998 NBA finals are still the highest rated in league history. To get back to that level of popularity, the league can’t rely on another Jordan to come around. They need to get people interested in the league as a whole.

That starts with marketing the smaller teams. How do you do that? Well, the NBA is a star-driven league, so let’s get people interested in some stars. Look at the Phoenix Suns, for example. Let’s get people interested in Devin Booker. The Hawks are another great team, so let’s get people interested in Trae Young. This is how you bring popularity to the small markets in the NBA.

Right now is the absolute perfect time. There are 3 small market teams in the conference finals right now, and the Clippers barely fit the bill as a big market team. The Suns, Bucks, and Hawks all have young stars who the fans love. Unfortunately, it feels like for many fans; this is their first real introduction to Trae Young or Devin Booker.

The league has to get this right. The 7-year-old kid who just watched game 1 of the Suns-Clipper series could be a lifelong Suns fan after watching�Devin Booker’s performance. The 12-year-old out in her driveway practicing floaters because she saw Trae Young do it, she could be a lifelong Hawks fan. The biggest teams in the league have huge, loyal, even crazy fanbases. It’s time the small markets in the NBA build up those same connections.

This is a perfect chance for the league to start bringing in new lifelong fans. Not via the Lakers and Celtics and not via Lebron or Kevin Durant. They can bring in fans for some of their younger stars and some of their smaller teams. Those connections are important when building a strong fanbase for your sport.

Compared to leagues like the MLB and NFL, the NBA is rather new. It only gained real popularity in the mid-80s. It still has a long way to go before it reaches the level of those sports. Football and baseball are fully embedded in American society. I think the NBA has an opportunity to be something even bigger than that.

The NBA already has a far greater international fanbase than those leagues. If the NBA markets itself right, it could become a global sport. Will it ever reach the level of soccer? I doubt it. But it has a chance to become something similar. That path can begin right here, with these playoffs. So no, the success of small markets in the NBA isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity.

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