After years of big market dominance, the NBA is now seeing a small market resurgence.
For years now, it has felt as though big market NBA teams have had an obvious advantage when compared to the rest of the league. For starters, most superstar players want to play for big markets as it affords them more opportunities off the court. Not to mention, the weather in these larger markets is usually better, which ultimately forces players to go to teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, and even the Los Angeles Clippers. As a result, it has become difficult for small market teams to retain their superstars. In fact, there are only a few instances of superstars toughing it out. The two most obvious examples are Damian Lillard with the Portland Trail Blazers and Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Over the last few years, big market teams have dominated when it comes to making it to the NBA Finals. The only real exception to this rule has been the Cleveland Cavaliers, although when LeBron James is on your team, you kind of become a big market by default. Otherwise, we have seen the Heat, Warriors, Lakers, and even the Raptors represent their respective conferences in the Finals. With this in mind, it has always felt like small markets would never get their chance, and if they did, they would be held back by poor Finals ratings that would spark a tiresome discussion about whether or not small markets are even necessary.
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Luckily, these NBA playoffs have completely eradicated that discourse as the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in the NBA Finals. Sure, Phoenix is the fifth biggest city in the United States by population size, however, it isn't exactly the deepest market when it comes to sports. When it comes to attendance, the Suns have consistently been at the bottom of the league for years, and even when the team had its run of success with Steve Nash, the franchise couldn't even crack the Top 10. Not to mention, the team is worth $1.7 billion which makes them the 17th most valuable team in the NBA. As for the Bucks, well, they have similar attendance issues, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. In terms of value, they are ranked even lower than the Suns, as they have an evaluation of $1.625 billion.
Despite all of this, it has been truly remarkable to watch these teams make it to the NBA Finals. After years of being labeled as a "poverty franchise," the Suns acquired Chris Paul and went from a lottery team to an NBA Finals favorite. Meanwhile, the Bucks finally broke through their playoff woes and got to their first final since 1974. It's a matchup that has Paul going for his first ring in 16 years, while Giannis looks to cement his legacy as one of the best foreign players ever, and he's only 26. Aside from the very obvious narratives at play here, both teams have been playing inspired basketball, and they took full advantage of the paths laid out in front of them. While fans began to kick and scream about injuries, the Suns and Bucks kept cool heads and persevered to where they are now. It's a very welcomed departure from the predictability we have been made privy to over the last decade.
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Case-in-point, NBA Finals ratings were among the worst ever recorded in 2020. Many blamed BLM and the Coronavirus for this, although perhaps it can also be explained by the fact that fans are tired of seeing franchises like the Heat and Lakers succeed. Leading up to Game 1 of the series between the Bucks and Suns, there were various fans claiming that the ratings would be even worse. Well, they were in for a massive shock as it was revealed that Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals saw a 13 percent increase over the ratings from Game 1 of last year's final. At the peak of the game, there were 9.9 million viewers, all while the match set records in the Phoenix and Milwaukee markets. These Game 1 statistics prove that the NBA doesn't need the largest markets to always be at the top. What matters most to the fans is the actual basketball product. If the basketball is good, fans are going to watch regardless. However, if the game is too predictable and people don't like the brand of basketball that's being played, then the NBA is going to suffer the consequences.
Thanks to the lack of small-market success over the years, teams like the Suns and Bucks have always felt like underdogs, and there is nothing better in sports than a good underdog story. Just imagine how intriguing it would be next season if a team like the Charlotte Hornets or perhaps even the New Orleans Pelicans made a deep run in the playoffs next season. Of course, these examples are very unlikely, however, they are so shocking that they would immediately create an uptick in viewership, as NBA fans would be curious to see just how far they can go. This season, the Bucks and the Suns were able to do just that, and turned what could have been a terrible season, into a successful one.
While there will always be entitled Lakers fans who bash on the smaller markets, it's important to block out the noise and focus on what we've been given. In just a couple of weeks, a team will either be awarded its first-ever NBA title, or its first title in 50 years. No matter how you spin that, it's a win for the NBA and basketball fans everywhere.