The entertainment promise of sports

Chuck Klosterman ponders the purpose of sports we pay to watch in the light of David Stern fining the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for resting four of its star players in a game against the Miami Heat.

I'll approach the question in light of the Miami Heat's loss to the Washington Wizards last night. I happened to flip to the game and watch a good chunk of it while tapping away on my computer, and you don't have to be a basketball expert to see that the Heat lost because they were indifferent on defense, definitely nowhere near exerting maximum effort to win (Dwayne Wade is a beloved Miami sports figure, but he coasts on defense so much he deserves to be called on it much more). The Heat knew they were far better than the Wizards, and if both teams had been exerting maximum effort, I'd venture the Heat would easily win 9 out of every 10 games, if not more.

The result of the mismatch was a close contest, which some would argue is what fans enjoy. But not all close contests are created equal. Watching two inept teams battle to a near draw is gruesome, and when a good team slacks off against a bad team, that's not fun to watch, either. The truth is, the majority of NBA regular seasons I attend feel overpriced and not that enjoyable. The same for Major League Baseball, though tickets are at least cheaper.

As with movies, though, all baseball and basketball games tend to be priced exactly the same. It's in the free market, for example on StubHub or Craigslist, where you can see how much fans really value a particular regular season game, and with the exception of matchups between two really great teams, especially nationally televised ones, when star players tend to bring their A-Game, a lot of sports contests in baseball and football are just poor entertainment products.

[The NFL is an exception because there are only 16 regular season games and so it's rare to have games that teams just plain concede.]

Both the NBA and MLB would benefit from shortening the season, but they'll never do it because of the additional revenue from the extra contests. The NBA has an additional problem in that talent in the draft is extremely top heavy, so if you're out of it, the best thing to do at the end of the season is to tank to try to get into the draft lottery. I don't care how much David Stern fines the Spurs, no NBA fan is fooled by the illusion of every NBA game being equal in entertainment value.

It's a reminder of another reason why Michael Jordan was such an anomaly. My mom used to get me tickets for my birthday to see Jordan play every year, and I'd venture to say that by the time I die, most of the NBA games I'll have ever watched in my life will have involved Jordan. I never once saw him concede a game, or not exert effort to win, even in trap games like the second game of a road and road back-to-back at the end of a long road trip, when teams tend to just mail it in due to fatigue and/or indifference. He was pathologically, unhealthily competitive, but you always got your money's worth when he was on the court, and he held his teammates to that absurd standard. The fact that the Bulls own the record for most wins in an 82-game season is testament to the fact that they were good that year, but it's also testament to the fact that they didn't take any nights off, and a lot of that was rooted in Jordan's ability to find competitive motivation in any situation, in any form of competition. In that ability to bring it night after night, we might consider MIchael Jordan a method athlete.