There’s an urban legend going around, and I’m guilty of telling this story as if it actually happened to me.
I was in the airport once and got upgraded to first class. When I got to my seat I discovered I was sitting next to Dennis Rodman. Rodman had some crazy hair color and was wearing headphones that were so loud I could hear the music. After we took off, I waited about 30 minutes to get the nerve to say something to him. So I asked him, “What’s with the hair?” He removed his headphones looked at me and said “Everyone’s got a jump shot.” And then he went back to his music.
Urban legend or not, it might be the smartest thing Rodman has ever said. Rodman wasn’t much of a scorer – he was known for his tireless defense and being able to out rebound just about everyone with his energy and effort. And the beauty for Rodman, was that the NBA provided the perfect stage for him to market himself. Rodman was an actor on one of sports greatest theatrical stages.
Think about some of America’s other major sports. Now imagine if Dennis Rodman played football for the NFL. His antics, hair style and tats certainly would have been minimized by a helmet and football pads.What about Major League Baseball? I’m pretty sure Rodman in a ball cap in left field wouldn’t have been as interesting. Nascar, Hockey, same story.
The NBA offers players the ability to showcase not only their talents, but their personalities as well. And while Rodman hasn’t played in the NBA for over a decade, his impact on creating theater within the game still exists.
The NBA is different. Lebron James. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. James Harden’s beard. If you paid any attention to the NBA Finals or the playoffs, these people are recognizable as old friends. Kevin Durant in tears leaving the floor after losing to the Miami Heat in the 2012 finals, Lebron flipping his headband to a screaming fan with sweat pouring down his face, Miami’s Chris Bosh with muscles flexing in victorious joy. You recognized Harden’s beard on the floor before you knew he was even in the game. Jeez, the NBA even allows armpit hair to get air time.
The players are right in front of you, unhidden by pads, helmets, their every emotion on display for everyone to see. You know when they are complaining to the refs or when the drop an F-bomb (the sound is muted on tv for about a second). And the interviews of players at half, and at the end of the game make these groups of athletes more recognizable. More familiar. More enjoyable to watch. I’m a sucker for true human drama, and the NBA playoffs deliver that every year.
Maurice Jones-Drew had the most rushing yards in the NFL last year, but if you saw him walking down the street, you wouldn’t know it. The NFL has adorned their football players with helmets and padded their bodies making them look almost robotic. And rightly so, gotta keep these guys safe. But what the NFL sacrifices is theater.
I’ve been reading a great book lately, called “The Experience Economy” by Joe Pine. And while I’m not finished reading through it one constant theme keeps piquing my interest. “In the emerging Experience Economy, any work observed directly by a customer must be recognized as an act of theatre.”
If it wasn’t for the theater that the NBA provides I doubt I’d even pay attention. I prefer the college game to the pro game, but the theater is the hook the NBA has that these other sports often miss. And while the other sports provide theater in a different way, the NBA has sold me through theater.
So what if your product isn’t as great as your competitors? What if that mattered less because of the experience… or the theater you provided them?