The face of professional basketball no longer wears Magic Johnson’s familiar smile. It no longer has Michael Jordan’s classic elegance.
Today, the game has a hipper, edgier persona. Tattoos and baggy shorts, a thumping beat.
The league’s image has been tarnished by the recent melee between players and fans at an arena in Auburn Hills, Mich. The association with hip-hop similarly plays into concerns about a growing disconnect between the NBA and a portion of its audience. The head of a grass-roots fan group says that in the minds of some middle-aged ticket buyers, the music has helped perpetuate the notion of a “thug league.”
The association between basketball and hip-hop grew even stronger when NBA sponsors began making use of rap in their promotions. Consider the case of Jay-Z, who signed a sneaker deal with Reebok and is also among a group of investors that owns the New Jersey Nets.
The rapper is a marketing director’s dream, connecting with millions of young fans who listen to his music. He can also be problematic among older fans, given that his lyrics have been called misogynistic and, three years ago, he was sentenced to probation for stabbing a record producer.
Research suggests that using rappers as endorsers can be particularly effective in reaching the 12- to 24-year-old demographic, said Apostolopoulou, the Bowling Green professor. She pointed out that rap music has crossed racial boundaries, drawing fans among blacks, whites and Latinos.
So the NBA has carefully incorporated hip-hop. That includes playing the music in arenas and signing deals with apparel manufacturers such as FUBU and D’Funkd. The group Nappy Roots is currently performing as part of the NBA’s “Rhythm ‘n Rims” promotional tour.
“When you go to NBA games, it’s dominated by hip-hop,” Hutcherson said. “Basically, the perception we’ve gotten from our membership is that, with the NBA, it’s a thug league.”
This sentiment resonated through the media. Shaun Powell, writing for Newsday, called the fight “an extension of the hip-hop culture [the players] embrace, which promotes and encourages anger, violence, selfishness, bling-bling, excess, the exploitation of women and showboating.”
Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, sensing a disconnect between fans and players, wrote of hip-hop: “It is a life based on getting ‘respect’ at any cost, including going into the stands and administering a beat-down if somebody ‘disrespects’ you.”
Yet experts insist the NBA would be foolish to turn away. Dean Bonham, whose Denver-based company, the Bonham Group, serves as a marketing consultant to several NBA teams, explained that the risk of making 40-plus fans uncomfortable is worth the upside.
“We know hip-hop is this generation’s music and its style,” Bonham said. “Hip-hop carries with it the opportunity to impact purchase decisions by perhaps the most affluent group of young people in this country’s history.”
The theory is, all those kids listening to OutKast and Mos Def could grow up to be the next generation of season-ticket holders.