Mark Cuban on difference between NBA and NFL: “The NBA markets its players”

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Football is the most popular and dominant of the American sports domestically, and with that the NFL remains the 800-pound gorilla of American sports.

Or, maybe that’s 700-pound gorilla. In recent years, football in general and the NFL in particular have lost momentum. It’s not just that viewership numbers are down (that’s something every major sport is dealing with as younger generations consume media differently, in ways that don’t fit the traditional model), it’s that youth participation numbers are dropping as well. That’s a troubling sign for the sport.

Meanwhile, the NBA seems to be picking up momentum behind popular young stars such as Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mark Cuban, governor of the Dallas Mavericks, spoke about the difference between the NBA and NFL when he appeared on “Kanell and Bell” on CBS Sports HQ Tuesday.

“The NFL sells the NFL. The NBA sells its players. The NFL markets the NFL. The NBA markets its players, and players drive who we are in the NBA. You couldn’t identify 90 percent of NFL players if they were standing right in front of you. That’s a big part of their core problem. If you look at the social media following of NFL players, it’s not that big … So, that’s an issue for NFL players, and I’m thinking it’s by design from the NFL because that’s what gives them more leverage. NFL players don’t make nearly as much off the field, other than the quarterback and maybe one skill position player, maybe two per team, as NBA players do, because they just don’t have the brand or visibility. That gives the NFL a lot more negotiating power, and I think that’s something that the NFL should be helping their players with more.”

The NFL certainly works to control its marketing and message much more tightly. However, other factors help the NBA market its players — they are not wearing helmets on the court, so we see their faces more, and there are fewer NBA players. To be fair, most fans couldn’t identify NBA players on the back half of the bench most of the time, but the starters and stars do get more facetime. And the league does encourage them to speak out on social issues and to build their brands.

With that comes the player empowerment in the NBA that troubles some… but not Cuban.

“Unlike every other professional sports league, we’re a talent-driven league … We get the benefits of that. Our guys have the biggest social media following, our guys have the biggest social impact when there’s issues around the country, around the world. Guys have made the effort to develop those followings, and to build themselves as brands, and the NBA is the only professional sport that has really benefited from that, and the trade-off from that is the talent has more power, and in reality that’s just real world … I don’t have a problem with it.”

Cuban went on to say he thought the player movement this summer — and the fact the title chase is the most wide open it has been in many years — is going to be good for the league. Rather than just LeBron’s Lakers and Curry’s Warriors selling out buildings, now there will be more teams attracting fans. That’s good for business in Cuban’s eyes.

All these comments will sit well with players. However, the NBA faces the same challenges as the NFL and other leagues in adapting to modern viewing habits, and more importantly figuring out how to make that profitable. No league has quite figured that out.