Just how deep are the NBA’s hooks in the consciousness of American sports fans? Consider July 4, when social media and sports talk radio were lit up not by the on-court action at Wimbledon or debate over pennant races in America’s notional national pastime but by a business decision in a sport whose season won’t begin until late October. When free-agent basketball star Kevin Durant used America’s birthday to declare his own independence from the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the greatest regular-season team in NBA history–the 73-win Golden State Warriors–the sports world lost its mind. After eight years without a title in Oklahoma City, Durant was called a traitor for ditching a passionate small-market fan base in favor of a talent-packed supersquad. That he fled to the Warriors, against whom the Thunder blew a two-game lead in the Western Conference finals, only added to the criticism.
So yes, sympathize with OKC, whose future prospects are bleak. But take a moment to recognize what it all means for the larger sports landscape. Thanks to a combination of economic, technological and cultural forces, professional basketball is hotter than ever. The comings and goings of free-agent players are commanding more attention than the results of in-season sports, and the eight-figure contracts they’re signing would give Warren Buffett sticker shock. This may sound like a bad thing. But it actually bodes very well for the future of America’s marquee sports export.
The roots of this go-go moment in the NBA date back to 2010, when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Much like the new-look Warriors, this squad formed a supposedly villainous “superteam” that would destroy all semblance of competitive balance. Those Heat teams, however, didn’t stomp all over the league like some sort of high-topped Godzilla. They won two championships but also lost in the finals twice: to the sweet-shooting Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and to the beautifully unselfish San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Further, intriguing story lines emerged that no one had seen coming in 2010, like the rise of the Warriors, 26-56 that season, and their skinny, shoot-from-the-parking-lot point guard, Stephen Curry.
Ever since James famously took his talents to South Beach and then back to Cleveland, the NBA’s popularity has surged. The 2010–11 regular season, for example, was the most viewed ever on ABC, ESPN and Turner. Average viewership on ABC spiked 38% over one year. Dynamic players like James, Durant and Chris Paul expanded the league’s appeal as pitchmen for Fortune 500 companies.
And the NBA has cashed in. In an era when TV networks are willing to pay a premium for supposedly DVR-proof live events that attract an engaged mass audience, the cost of airing NBA games has soared. In October 2014, the league re-upped with ESPN and Turner, signing a nine-year, $24 billion extension that represented a 180% increase over the previous deal. The new money starts flowing this upcoming season. As a result, the league’s per-team salary cap spiked from $70 million in 2015–16 to $94 million in 2016–17, a 34% increase.
Because of this good fortune, the Warriors could afford to add 2014 NBA MVP Durant, for $54 million over two years, to a team that already includes two-time reigning MVP Curry and All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But it’s not just elite players who are benefiting. Under the NBA’s labor agreement, teams must spend 90% of their salary cap on their roster. As a result, role players like Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova are being paid more than the GDP of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.
Plenty of these deals could backfire on teams, Durant’s included. But they won’t slow the NBA’s ascent. This year’s Cavaliers-Warriors finals drew, on average, 20.2 million viewers, making it the most watched series since Michael Jordan’s last go-around with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Another rematch next year, with Durant on his quest for a first title in the mix, would deliver spectacular basketball–and an even bigger ratings boost.
Unless you live in Oklahoma City, that’s something worth cheering.
This appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of TIME.
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