The Foreign Invasion of the American Game

Euro: New Currency of the NBA

But what of guys like Dallas's Nowitzki, who regularly gets double figures in points and rebounds, even in the playoffs? "The difference is that guys like Dirk couldn't have even gotten off the bench in the past," Edwards says. "Could you see him trying to guard Julius Erving or Dominique Wilkins? They would be bouncing the ball off the back of his head. No coach would allow him out there because he can't play defense. But he's out there now, and starring in this league, because the game has changed."

In 1995, according to figures from the University of South Florida's Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NBA was 82 percent African-American. By 2002, the percentage fell to 78. It's a good bet that it will continue to fall, based on predictions of what will happen in this year's NBA draft. Last year, six foreign players were chosen in the first round of the draft. According to an average of three mock drafts conducted ahead of this June's real thing, that number will be going up significantly.

illustration: Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

The key question, not to beat a dead horse here, is whether this change in the complexion of the league is driven by money concerns. The conspiracy theory unfolds like this: In the late '90s, black players were viewed by the white audience as (1) having cornrows and too many tattoos, (2) involved in drug use and drive-by shootings, and (3) having fathered too many fun babies. Last year, on ESPN's Sunday Conversation, Charles Barkley said, "The NBA's ratings and attendance are down. The white audience doesn't like to see a bunch of guys with tattoos and cornrows who get in trouble all the time. Anyone who doesn't believe that—they're stupid."

The question is whether a white audience prefers to watch white players. NBA Commissioner David Stern won't return the Voice's calls, but league spokesman Terry Lyons says, "Absurd."

"Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit," adds Dean Bonham, chairman and CEO of the Bonham Group, a leading sports-marketing firm in Denver. "That's the stupidest question I've ever heard," e-mailed Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

All point out that the NBA is based on merit, and no GM would dare bring in inferior players based upon race. Certainly not for money. Players are chosen for their ability, the NBA's Lyons points out, and marketing is secondary. "To suggest that players are being brought into this league because of international marketing and TV ratings is absurd," Lyons says. "Marketing and TV ratings come from star players who can play in this league, not the other way around."

But does race affect TV ratings? In 2001, Mark Kanazawa, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, and Jonas Funk, a financial analyst in San Francisco, published a study in the journal Economic Inquiry that examined what effect white players have on Nielsen ratings. Using a complicated formula (and terms like "heteroskedasticity")—which took into account a team's record, number of all-stars playing, whether the white players were on the court or benchwarmers—Kanazawa and Funk came to the conclusion that each white player on a team increased ratings by 0.54 of a point. That would increase the number of households watching by 3,500 to 36,200 for each white player, depending on market size. According to the study, the additional revenues from the higher ratings would mean an additional $1.1 million for the Knicks and the Nets for every white player on their rosters.

There are some holes in the study (would 12 white players be worth $12 million extra?), but it does show that race might have an effect on sports fans' viewing habits. And it is absurd to deny that race might have something to do with ratings. This season, the NBA moved its TV contract from NBC to a package with ABC, ESPN, and TNT, meaning that very few regular-season games, and practically none of the playoffs, could be seen on broadcast TV. The question that begs to be asked, and it's not a frivolous one, as some in the NBA community contend, is whether the NBA values its minority audience, which has significantly less access to cable than do white households.

"The NBA is a business, and we chose the distribution for broadcast that offered us the most money," Cuban told the Voice. "Broadcast television didn't see as much value, and if you are suggesting that minorities are more a customer of the broadcast networks, you will have to speak to them about the implications in how they deal with their customers."

Fair enough. Money is what makes the world go round. But when you add up the legs of this conspiracy theory—rule changes that affect the style of play, foreign players who better fit that style, fewer and fewer African-American players, more international marketing money, and higher TV ratings—well, it might not be so absurd for black NBA fans to feel that brothers might be getting pushed out for reasons other than basketball skill.

"What we see being done is indicative of what has been done to us historically before," said Scoop Jackson, referring to the idea that Elvis helped make black music more comfortable for white audiences. "Same thing is happening here. When the number of black players became too high, the white audience wasn't comfortable. So the NBA changed it all."

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