What Mark Cuban Thinks the NBA Does
As every company tries to become a tech company, how should the sports & entertainment world think about the biz?
While it’s cliche in Silicon Valley to reference HBS theories of management, I’ve always enjoyed Clay Christensen’s “jobs to be done” concept. The basic premise is simple: customers “hire” a product to do some job, which may be different than the expected or advertised purpose.
Just as a milkshake may be “hired” not to give nutrition, but to have something to sip on while you drive your daily commute, Robinhood may be “hired” by customers to entertain and teach, not to provide access to efficient financial markets. Or McKinsey might be contracted not to gain new insights, but to generate prestige and reinforcement for what will be an internally unpopular management decision.
This framework is particularly interesting in places where the monetization of a business diverges from the reason it sells. Michael Jordan and Kanye West didn’t become billionaires from sports and music — their work with Nike and Adidas generated their wealth.
Mark Cuban’s 2019 post What Business is the NBA in? explores that seemingly simple question by deconstructing what the NBA’s really doing for fans.
He kicks off the post with an emphatic statement: “The NBA does not sell basketball!” and follows it up with some detail:
We in the sports business don’t sell the game, we sell unique, emotional experiences. We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun. We are in the business of letting you escape. We are experiential entertainment. We are in the business of giving you a chance to create shared experiences. I say it to our people at the Mavs at all time, I want a Mavs game to be more like a great wedding than anything else.
This is generally correct, in my view. Showing up to a stadium and feeling the people’s energy — not seeing the game mechanics unfold — is what makes it meaningful.
The question becomes: how fans better engage with the experience rather than the game?
Cuban defines a “look down” moment as a sign of disengagement and escape to the outside world:
IMHO, that means eliminating as many of the “look down” moments in the game as I possibly can. Once you sit in your seat, the only time I want you to look down is to pick up the soda or beer you set down under your seat and maybe to check your phone to see if you got a text from the sitter or your buddy about where to meet after the game.
I want you always looking up. Looking at the game and the entertainment in the arena. You can’t cheer if you aren’t watching. It’s my job to give you something other than the game to look up at.
Again, I generally agree with his assessment of how to make the in-person fan experience strong. The music, Jumbotron, cheerleaders, announcer, lights, halftime shows, etc. all come together to make it work. See an example of this in action here:
I like the post so much because it concisely lays out principles for the “job to be done” by the NBA.
Sports is the only place in life where we encourage you to yell and scream at the top of your lungs and clap for the good guys. That is who we are. We have to do everything possible to encourage more of it!
Where it falls short, though, is unifying a theory of the NBA as a holistic business, rather than an in-person stadium experience.
There are a number of trends underlying the sports biz over the past decade:
The continued focus on “star power” of key player personalities over team-level brand loyalty.
New methods of consuming content (less radio/TV, more social media short-form clips).
Fan involvement in the businesses (drafts, team trade politics, franchise owner drama, fantasy leagues, betting) rather than just the games themselves.
Monetization being driven by merch, video games, sponsorships, etc. Selling tickets is not the biggest revenue driver.
One can easily expand the “job to be done” for the NBA to include this. There is not only a stadium experience to be had as a part of an electric crowd, but also a deeply personal story involving parasocial relationships with key players, competition in fantasy leagues, entertainment driven by behind-the-scenes action, and more.
I’m sure insiders understand this fairly thoroughly at this point, but regardless, the point remains. The NBA is not in the business of making it easier to track stats on your phone or tune into games. The NBA is in the business of making you feel like you’re there in the room with the players, coaches, and owners.
And I believe this lesson extends far past the sports biz.
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