LeBron James (right) and Kevin Durant (left), two of the NBA's most popular players. (Picture from: The New York Times)
Regardless of whether it’s the NBA, FIBA, the EuroLeague, or the G-League, the fact remains; basketball is the world’s most important major sport. More than soccer, more than football, more than baseball, more than hockey, basketball is the most influential sport in the world.
Basketball's Influence in the Media and Pop Culture
A recently-released Netflix Original movie, High Flying Bird, gives a fictional look at a very real event — the 2011 NBA lockout. One of the first lines spoken in the film details just a few key reasons why basketball is the most important professional sport. In the context of an NBA agent reassuring his client, a rookie, the actor states: “Football is fun, but it don’t sell sneakers. To move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services.” Simply put, basketball is more than a sport. Basketball is influential in so many different cultures (hip/hop, sneakers, etc.) that it’s become almost like a culture of its own.
The Clothing Industry
Despite the fictional nature of the movie, there could not be more truth to that statement. Skates are worn solely in hockey games by hockey players. Baseball, football, and soccer cleats are worn solely by baseball, football, and soccer players. Basketball shoes can be seen on the feet of the majority of people defined as millennials and any generation younger. Go to a mall in the summer, and spend some time — weird as it may seem — observing people’s feet. You’ll see a whole lot of basketball shoes, and absolutely no cleats of any kind. Kobes, LeBrons, Kyries, KDs, and above all else, Jordans, are universally known and worn shoes, both on the court and in the streets. Nobody other than soccer players even knows if Ronaldo has a shoe brand. I sure don’t.
That fact doesn’t extend solely to shoes. A pair of Jordan men’s basketball shorts goes for as low as 40 CAD and as high as about a whopping 60 CAD at Foot Locker. That’s a lot of money for a pair of shorts. However, the crazy thing about that isn’t the price of the shorts. It’s the sheer volume at which they’re sold. I mean, a pair of shorts from a lesser-known brand would go for less than half that much. And yet, Jordan shorts are consistently being sold out in stores across North America. That goes not only for shorts, but all merchandise. Shirts, pants, sweaters, hats, you name it — they’re all being sold in quantities of millions, well above market value, all because of that tiny basketball player logo strategically placed on the merchandise.
The Hip/Hop Industry
The influence that basketball has on the hip/hop industry is shown through lyrics of some famous rap songs. From Ice Cube and Jay-Z back in the ‘90s and early 2000s to Drake in 2010 and J. Cole just a few months ago, basketball and some of the more famous NBA players have been the subject of countless rap lyrics. The King himself, LeBron James, even said that “Rappers want to be ballers”. Rappers, who have a lavish enough lifestyle of their own, according to James, yearn to play on the court for tens of thousands of fans each night. Part of that is because rappers and basketball players are products of their environment. Most rappers and hoopers are raised in low-income areas in which sports and music are the most-chosen routes to success. Often, young men explore both paths. Rappers 2 Chainz, Lil’ Romeo, and Dave East all played college basketball, with their time as hoopers becoming an oft-mentioned topic in their songs, and LeBron James and Kevin Durant even made a song together during the 2011 lockout.
Even rappers who never made it to that level are either fans of basketball or former players. Former college hoopers like Dave East reminisce on their times playing, “I played ball, I was the man on campus” while more fan-oriented rappers like J. Cole (who did play for one year in high school) discuss the state of the league now “I pray for Markelle ‘cause they f*cked up his shot/Just want you to know you got it”.
Songs aside, basketball involves rappers in other facets of the sport as well. Drake even has more of a business role with his hometown Toronto Raptors as their Global Ambassador (although nobody is quite sure exactly what he actually does), and other rappers like the Migos, J. Cole, and Travis Scott regularly attend their hometown teams’ (Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and Houston Rockets, respectively) games more so than other celebrities attend other sporting events.
Basketball also has a huge presence and following on social media. Big sites like Bleacher Report and House of Highlights routinely post sports highlights on Instagram, with basketball being featured more than any other sport on either site. A basketball video from Bleacher Report averages more than a million views, and House of Highlights (who post almost exclusively basketball content) see nearly two million views per post.
A flashy dunk from any number of the NBA’s resident-freak-athletes or a clutch, game-winning bucket or a Splash Brothers three-point display or a massive block has an effect on fans that some other sports struggle to achieve. In the NBA, you see those kinds of plays on a more-or-less nightly basis throughout the league.
Basketball comedy is another facet of social media that has a big following on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Social media personalities who are being defined as “basketball comedians” tend to either imitate professional hoopers or voice-over viral clips of basketball games. Brandon Armstrong is a pioneer of basketball comedy. Known as BdotAdot5, Armstrong was a professional basketball player in the NBA, NBA D-League, and overseas. When his career was over, Armstrong turned to imitating famous hoopers like James Harden and LeBron James in an exaggerated manner, and his videos went viral.
Since then, many have taken to basketball comedy including Carlos Sanford (FamousLos32) and Jesse Jones (Filayyyy). The biggest basketball comedy personalities, all three guys played basketball in college or the pros, and all three operate in different facets of basketball comedy. FamousLos reacts to viral clips in a hilariously dry manner, and Filayyyy narrates viral clips through song. BdotAdot has 1.6 million followers on Instagram, FamousLos has 1.2 million, and Filayyyy has 1.3 million. These guys have involved the majority of the younger generations in basketball in a unique way that other sports have not.
Basketball's Influence in the World
Soccer makes a good case for the “most influential major sport” due to its being loved internationally. The FIFA World Cup is a huge deal, yes. And yes, across the world, from Africa to North America, from Europe to Asia and Australia, you can see kids playing soccer in the parks or the yard at school. At a more professional level, every continent in the world (Antarctica excluded) has at least one professional soccer league. In Japan, they have the J-League. In Germany, it’s the Bundesliga. In England, the Premier League. In Canada and the USA, we have the MLS. All over the world, soccer remains the most international sport.
Now, that’s partly due to how cheap and easy it is to start a soccer game. In the poorest parts of the world, like the favelas of Brazil and small African villages, kids can make a ball out of dirty laundry and use sticks or rocks as the goals. That gets kids with immense athletic ability into soccer at an early age, despite sometimes having little means to afford special shoes or equipment.
Hockey and football are incredibly expensive sports to play at even the most amateur level. Skates alone cost a fortune, as do football cleats. Only in Canada and America will you see kids playing football, and hockey is played in North America and Europe alone. Baseball is enjoyed mainly in Asia and North America, and still not quite with the same fervour as soccer.
Basketball is the lone sport that can challenge the internationality of soccer. Across Europe, basketball is huge, thanks to the EuroLeague and European NBA stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, and Luka Doncic. In Africa, the Toronto Raptors president, Masai Ujiri, started the Giants of Africa initiative. Giants of Africa goes from country to country within Africa, hosting basketball camps and building facilities in which kids can enhance their skills in hopes of one day playing at a professional level. Basketball Without Borders is another initiative that involves African kids in the sport, with many current NBA players like the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam and the Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center, Joel Embiid. In Asia, basketball was long neglected as a sport.
These days, its popularity continues to grow with the emergence of such players as Chinese-American Jeremy “Linsanity” Lin, Filipino Kobe Paras and Japanese Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe, a potential NBA lottery pick and NBA player for the Memphis Grizzlies, respectively. The professional leagues in China, Japan, and the Philippines are becoming increasingly popular due to the recent stream of former college and NBA players in their ranks. With a wealth of South American players in the NBA, the majority of which are from Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil, many fans down there are enamoured with basketball.
Basketball's is the Most Influential Sport in the World
Basketball is thought by many to be a culture, not just a sport, what with the shoes, the clothes, and the influence on the music industry and social media. In the business world, basketball merchandise makes billions of dollars, from basketball shoes like LeBrons or Kobes, to sneakers and tracksuits from Jordan. Due to its being relatively easy to play, basketball can be enjoyed all across the world, making it more widespread than any sport save soccer. Basketball is, and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be, the most important, influential sport in the world. Regardless of which sport you consider to be your favourite, that’s an indisputable fact.