Which is the sport of the future?


The other night in Boston, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the case that basketball is poised to become the dominant sport in America in the years ahead.

"Our demographic keeps on getting younger," he told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. "The NFL and baseball, they keep on getting older . . . And in the bigger scheme of things in terms of building fans for the future, what do you want your kids to play? I mean, of all the sports out there, do you want to go to a baseball game, or do want to watch your kid play basketball? Do you want to worry about him a whole football game, or do you want to watch your kid play basketball? Do you want him to get healthy from running the court, or do you want to watch him play football and worry about collisions?"

Interesting points. And another point in basketball's favor, thinks Cuban, is the accessibility of the players.

"[I] think what really makes the NBA stand out heads and tails above every other sport is you know our players," he said. "Tom Brady, [Rob] Gronkowski -- how many other football players, if you saw them from the Patriots, would you know? . . . In baseball, of the 25 players, you might know two or three. Kids play [NBA] 2K, watch a game, watch TV; you know every player. That’s a huge advantage because our players have brands. Our players have platforms. Our players have voices. LeBron [James] tweets, and more people see it than our politicians."

Is Cuban right?

We asked our NBC Sports Boston Insiders to make the case for -- and against -- the sports they cover: 

WHY THE NBA WILL: The NBA’s growing popularity has the league well-positioned to eventually replace the NFL as the sport of choice in this country. For starters, the NBA’s best and brightest talent are more visible in terms of their stature as pro athletes, and haven’t shied away from expressing themselves on issues of the day in a more consistent manner than their football brethren, which has been a factor in the NFL’s numbers sliding some. The NBA is physical, but the league’s level of violence isn’t anywhere close to what you see in the NFL. There are more well-defined heroes and villains in the NBA, so finding a team to root for or against is a lot easier.

WHY IT WON'T: If the NBA comes up short in surpassing the NFL as the sport of choice in this country, there are a few factors that will likely come into play. LeBron James is still a major draw both on and off the court. And while there are many talented young players in the league, the NBA without LeBron will be lacking the elite superstar power we’ve grown accustomed to seeing as the face of the league. When Larry Bird and Magic left, Michael Jordan was still around. When MJ fell off, we had Kobe Bryant. Since Kobe walked away, it has been even more of LeBron’s world. Who’s got next? Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook are some of the names that immediately come to mind. And then there’s the potential for the NFL’s ratings to bounce back under the (seemingly never-ending) leadership of commissioner Roger Goodell. 

WHY THE NFL WILL: The NFL is built to last because of the nature of the sport. The speed, the physicality, the schemes, the teamwork required for success, the once-a-week buildup for each individual fan base -- it's a perfect storm for popularity. Marketable stars like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Antonio Brown and JJ Watt help. Fantasy and gambling help. The fact that following your favorite team is now a year-long endeavor also allows the NFL to maintain its status as an American behemoth. There's the season. Then there's the Scouting Combine. Then free agency. Then the draft. Then OTAs. Then camp. Then before you know it, it's September. Football dominates the sports news cycle and remains in the forefront of fans' minds, and that doesn't seem like it's coming to an end anytime soon.

WHY IT WON'T: The NFL's popularity won't fall off a cliff because of anthem protests or concerns surrounding head injuries. But it might if the sole focus of the league office is to up its value to $25 billion. That was at one point in time Roger Goodell's stated goal, and there's no reason to believe that has changed. League owners recently rewarded him for his work on the business side of things by handing him a five-year contract extension. But as long as the NFL's energy is geared toward its profitability and not its product, then viewership will eventually suffer. Improving the officiating, starting up a legitimate developmental league . . . Those would cost NFL owners money but would serve to improve the quality of the game more than, say, plopping a team in London.

WHY THE NHL WILL: There is no better sporting experience than watching an NHL game inside a rocking, jam-packed arena, and there's no better postseason for thrills, chills and overtime killers than the Stanley Cup playoffs. For these reasons alone, the NHL should be the top of the heap when it comes to popularity and earning potential. And NHL players don’t have the same off-field and performance-enhancement issues that intermittently plague the other three major pro sports. Throw in that the NHL is the only league that still allows the gladiatorial aspect of fighting within the game, and there are some major selling points that go beyond the dizzying speed, punishing hits and natural skill that attracted millions of fans to pro hockey in the first place. 

WHY IT WON'T: No matter how high quality the broadcast, the game of hockey probably translates the worst of all the four major pro sports to television. Players and owners have a rocky relationship that's already completely killed one season (year-long strike) and nearly destroyed two others (lockouts that shortened the schedule), meaning there's always the danger of a distrupted or canceled season when a labor contract expires. And this may sound strange, but the players are too darned nice and respectful. They’ve been taught to shy away from being individuals and calling attention to themselves, which can be problematic when it comes to things like branding and marketability. There’s also the concussion issue, which is becoming a major looming problem for any contact sport like hockey. 

WHY MLB WILL: Huge guaranteed dollars, thanks to its players union, and the relative safety afforded athletes. The earning potential in baseball is greater than across the board than other sports. Baseball is a path that's physically easier on your body than most other sports; you may blow out your elbow as a pitcher, but you're much less likely to wind up suffering from, say, CTE. Ubiquity and brand recognition and tradition shouldn't be taken for granted. MLB saw its revenues surpass $10 billion for the first time in 2017, per a November Forbes story. The playoffs and World Series captured everyone's attention. People see the young stars now, the George Springers and Aaron Judges. 

WHY IT WON'T: The game needs speeding up, and they're going to have to make changes to do so. (At the amateur level, it's much quicker.) Some can argue baseball isn't accessible for lower income people; more accurately, basketball is simply more accessible. There are success stories of kids playing baseball with milk cartons for gloves, but it's fair to wonder why someone would go that route if there's a basketball hoop down the street. 


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