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Dressing the NBA for Success

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This has been talked about to death in both the mainstream media and blogs(both NBA-centric and not). So as overbearing as the coverage has been I hope spending some space regarding the NBA adopting a dress-code policy doesn't send the majority of you quickly searching the 'back button' of your browser...

I think as a serious and dedicated fan of the NBA it is hard to take an outsider's look at what exactly David Stern is trying to accomplish. I can't tell you I've given much thought regarding what the players dress like when they're at a press conference or walking to and from the team busses. Not that I actively embrace the type of style Stern is trying to curtail, (although seeing obscure throwback jerseys is always a treat. Can't wait until 2040 when someone sports a vintage Kornel David) it's just that I don't let the clothes make the man when it comes to me enjoying the NBA.

But this isn't about me or you, the hardcore fan. We're the choir that needs not be preached to.

David Stern's responsibility isn't to advance and promote acceptance to 'hip-hop' culture (for lack of a better term. Think of it as whatever age/class/race symbolism exudes from Stephen Jackson's jewelry) to the masses, breaking down socioeconomic barriers and getting the world to look past the outward appearance of an individual and all that. His responsibility is to the NBA.

To get one argument out of the way, I assume (since I don't have the legal acumen to say I 'know' without risk of being proved wrong and embarrassed by those smarter than me) that Stern and the NBA higher-ups have a right to impose this. And I think both opponents and proponents of this measure can agree that it's not based on David Stern's personal outlook on the league's players. It's due to what's been discussed for years: the perception of the league.

That leads to what I feel are the only important questions: Does the league have an image problem? If so, how bad is it hurting the league? Finally, will Stern's moves help?

Like I mentioned earlier it's hard for me to step back and look at these questions impartially. I love the league. While it's not perfect, I also think that reports of it's death have been greatly exaggerated by a lazy national media still wishing Jordan was around. But the truth is there are sports fans out there who would sit down to watch pretty much any sport but just plain don't like the NBA. To those I meet I don't try and cheerlead to convert their sports faith, but just assume that they are just making up reasons not to watch, or have built up in their minds what I view as an unwarranted and inaccurate view of the league. "They probably think the NBA is too young, too 'thuggish', or it just doesn't have the gambling cachet of football or the NCAA tournament",  I grumble. As Bill Simmons has once said, "I love the this game, even if you don't".

But David Stern doesn't have that luxury. The real result of an image problem isn't what is said or written about the NBA generating bad PR. It's reflected in whatever metrics the NBA's financial and marketing research people use to track the success of the league. Attendance, and TV ratings, and advertising: the money.  Do you think David Stern listened to a lame Jay Leno joke about the melee in Auburn Hills last season and assumes there's an image problem? I have a good feeling he wouldn't be concerned about the idea of an image problem unless there was evidence of either an already real impact or at least the existence of disturbing trends that needs reversal.

David Stern knows his league better than I do, and his actions over the past couple years tell me whether the perception problem is justified or not it's hurting the product. You can argue that the NBA painted itself in a corner by previously embracing a younger audience. Even so, it's hard for me to tell him to watch while his older and corporate customers erode and do nothing. It's obvious to everyone that he is pushing for a more international league as well, maybe this action has something to do with how he wishes to market the league overseas in the years to come.

It's easy to see that this move is just part of a series of steps (along with the draft age minimum) by Stern to combat the NBA's perception problem. It may work, but I have to mention my reservations of Stern's execution of this plan so far. How much of this bad public perception is fueled by him? He's not at the level of Bud Selig, who in a quest to break the baseball players union has badmouthed the state of his own league for as long as he's had the job. Stern usually puts a happy face about the state of the game, so seeing him aggressively campaign for this and other measures at times seems self-defeating. Has he found the situation is so dire that he needs to immediately take action? Or could this have been done more quietly to avoid what has happened: the league's problems being the big story.

I'll be watching either way,  I'm already hooked. For Stern's and the league's sake the problem better be real, because constantly telling everyone the league's need to change perception fuels that very negativity. And after taking this temporary hit to league perception by pushing for a dress code, their actions better have results.

Special hat-tip to My Man Sam(tm) who wrote a great article regarding this topic. As you can tell after reading it we shared a lot of the same arguments, so didn't want to fail mentioning it.