College Basketball vs. the National Basketball Association.
A sharp schism between the two represents an ideological divide that runs deeper than basketball. NBA Twitter will have you believe that college basketball is unwatchable with its extended shot clocks and the new hand-check rules that have turned the games into free-throw contests, while college basketball truthers speak about the “purity” of the college game played simply for the love of competition.
Some of the hostility seems to be drawn from the deep ideological differences that separate the two spheres. Excluding the student sections, most of the fans at college basketball games are the olds (over 40% of NCAA audience is 55 or older), while the NBA caters to a younger, more diverse audience. 45% of NBA viewers are under 35-years-old (#millennials) and “it also has the highest share of black viewers, at 45 percent—three times higher than the NFL or NCAA basketball.”
So what exactly is the root of this ideological divide? Merriam-Webster defines conservatism as the “belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society, [or a] dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area.” While the NBA has constantly pushed the game forward with rule changes that make the game more aesthetically pleasing, and generally showcases the personalities of its star athletes instead of suppressing them (Hi, Roger Goodell), the NCAA waited until 2008 to push back the 3-point line and until 2015 to shorten the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds and extend the restricted arc, and even those ideas were met with great hostility.
It’s no surprise, then, that the NBA dominates mobile video platforms like Vine (RIP). A cursory search on the social-media site in hospice reveals 193.5 thousand NBA vines, while the NFL returns 72.6 thousand, and MLB shows only 31.3 thousand. The NBA’s willingness to engage #millennials on social media and provide a comprehensive set of statistics to wade through on nba.com allow fans to interact with the game on their own terms. Because of this, it has captured #millennial viewers while football and baseball demographics are skewing older.
The NBA was comprised of 18.3% white players in 2015 and 74.3% black players making it the league with the highest percentage of black players in the United States and Canada. Is the division between the two institutions drawn on implicit racial prejudices, then? It’s certainly possible, especially when considering the number of white players in NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball is much higher than the NBA at 24.8%. Those numbers are even more significant in light of the fact that the NCAA is more heavily comprised of white, American players where a large chunk of the white players in the NBA are from outside of the U.S. Only 9.5% of NBA players are white Americans.
If we’re going to assume that there is nothing malicious going on with the demographics of the audience – that the fact that the whiter NCAA is accepted more by older white men is purely coincidental – what then, can explain the differences? Any individual NBA game is more likely to be better than a college basketball game in most measurables. Talent, execution, and pace are all much higher in the NBA, but college basketball has plenty to offer in the form of atmosphere and tradition.
That is what the whole #brand of college basketball is built on. The teams have a basketball tradition that dates back over 100 years in some cases, and the players and fans in some cases are literally invested in the team. The tuition-paying students and alumni give universities a built-in fanbase to draw from. They may be perceived as more passionate because the players came for the school (allegedly), the coach, and the winning tradition or atmosphere of the team. Because player movement is limited by the NCAA, the fans feel more of a connection to the players; they’re not mercenaries taking the biggest contract available to them.
There’s also a certain relatability factor that plays in. For other students, these athletes are seen walking around campus and may even be in the same classes. A lot more people are going to know, either personally or tangentially, someone playing college basketball than an NBA player. There are only 450 of them, and there’s a lot less turnover in the player pool. The level of skill it takes to even be the last man on the bench in the NBA is staggering; most NCAA teams are not even going to have a future NBA player among their ranks.
Now, this spirit of amateurism gets a little muddy when looking at the hundreds of millions of dollars that the “amateur” game brings in for a small handful of coaches, athletic directors, and other administrators while the average player spends over 43 hours a week in commitments for their sport, not including they need to spend to keep themselves academically eligible. Even more damning, is that college players don’t even control their own likeness; they don’t take a cut of the jersey sales with their number or from being featured in an EA Sports video game (none of the players are given names, it’s purely coincidental that the athletes have the same size and skills right?!).
My opinion on this matter is obviously shaped by the fact that I’ve grown up in Minnesota. I can barely remember the last time the Timberwolves were in the playoffs. Even though the Gopher basketball team has been terrible the past couple years, they have been competitive in recent memory, contributing to an overall better game atmosphere. College basketball certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the game-ops; there are certain teams that have been able to cultivate a real home-court advantage in the NBA with minimal pumped-in sound, but in general the constant hip-hop beats and PA Announcer started “Defense!” chants reveal the artifice of the entertainment-industrial complex that pro sports have become.
A common refrain among the college crowd is that NCAA players “play for the love of the game” The only truly compelling argument for the superiority of college basketball is the “nobody’s tanking” take. It’s really only ever a problem for a handful of teams in the NBA, but the current lottery system does reward tanking, or sandbagging (whichever you prefer). There are no top talents coming your way in college basketball from deliberately losing basketball games, in fact, the opposite is true.
The ideas that the nobody in the NBA plays defense or that it’s all one-on-one are not even worth discussing, they are so patently false. So yes, the NBA is “better” than NCAA basketball, and NCAA is “better” than high school, but any basketball is good basketball and should be celebrated as such. The NBA Playoffs are a wonderful thing. March Madness is a wonderful thing. Even High School State Tournaments are a wonderful thing. That there is a gap in talent level is irrelevant; now more than even we should come together to enjoy the beautiful game.