Tupac almost destroyed the NBA’s reputation. It was a reputation that was hand spun by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and so many other greats that busted their behinds through the 80’s and early 90’s. It was a time when people took notice of the NBA for the incredible talent, the passion, the competitiveness, the pure inspiration, and the intensity. Then Tupac almost took it to the floor. But he didn’t act alone. There was collusion from Sprite, Ron Artest, and of course, Darryl Cobbin.

Today the average age demographic for the most prolific NBA viewership is around 18 to 35. Any demographic after 35 gets progressively lower, which means the age group that brought the NBA into mainstream viewership in the 1980’s in no longer watching. The 1980’s brought the NBA finals to network television; Michael Jordan helped bring the NBA to the front page, his battles with the Piston’s Bad Boys made headlines on sports pages around the country.

But the NBA isn’t exclusive to just young audiences like bubble gum pop. Usually when you fall in love with a sport you fall in love for life. The twenty something’s in the 1980’s who helped bring the NBA into mainstream are now in their 50’s and 60’s and  studies on ratings show they aren’t watching anymore unless it is the Finals. But why aren’t they watching anymore? What prompted them to stop watching the NBA?

It’s Tupac and Darryl Cobbin’s Fault

I polled 100 men in their 50’s and 60’s about the NBA and I got the same 3 responses over and over again from the ones who said they didn’t watch (87 out of 100); 1.Overpaid Prima donnas; 2.They travel too much; 3. Its’ nothing but a thug league. Sometimes they said all 3 and sometimes they said just 2. But regardless, I very rarely heard any other responses. I then would ask them if they watched college basketball, and they all said yes with the reason that those boys “play for the sport, not the money”. All 87 said that. I asked all of them if they watched the WNBA and 100 said no. One person went as far as to ask why he would watch “a bunch of Amazons”. I had no reply.

The term “Overpaid Prima donna” is a loose term that doesn’t really say much. Not every player is a Prima donna and not every player in the NBA is overpaid. So this seems more like a personal attack on a single player than a valid compliant of an entire league. Plus, it is difficult to pin this issue down on just basketball. This would be a valid reason for not watching ALL sports, but not just the NBA.

The second excuse for not watching the NBA attests to the “gather step”. If you are still in the act of dribbling on the first step then technically that step doesn’t count. Many players have found ways to exploit this rule. This usually depends on how smooth the play and player is. Jordan and Kobe pulled this off so effortlessly you hardly ever heard a complaint. But a big man might have less of a chance to look smooth while doing it and thus gets called out on it.  Kobe used to take advantage of having picked up his dribble, and then would jump off his plant foot. Technically that could be considered a travel too, but Kobe seemed to do it so smooth that no one ever really noticed. He learned it from watching Jordan.

The last excuse I heard is more in depth. I couldn’t figure out why the NBA would be considered the “thug league” over the NFL and why that nomenclature was never attached to the players at the college level. I thought it was because you can see the tattoos on the players and that it might have intimidated an older audience, but that would include college. It had to be deeper than that. That was too easy, too pedestrian, and not the whole truth.

Enter Darryl Cobbin and Sprite

As a Junior Brand Manager at Coca-Cola, he set his goal on making Sprite a household name, in part because in the 1980’s Sprite had used some hip hop artists (Kurtis Blow among others) to advertise. Cobbin was a huge hip hop fan and saw this is a way to promote the product even further to a majority group of young individuals in America.

He started a quest to make Spite relevant and used hip hop to help promote it. By early spring in 1994 Sprite launched its first series of commercials starring hip hop artists.  The spots were a huge success (they included Common, Pete Rock, and Brand Nubian among others) and garnered more money for more marketing the next fiscal year.

By 1995 Sprite had started to gain a lot of attention and was gaining in market value too. It also happened to coincide with the great Michael Jordan coming back to Chicago. Jordan and The Bulls won the championship that year and the NBA was as popular as ever (The 1995 season was the highest rated season still to this date with a 5.0 rating).

By 1996-1997 Sprite had replaced Coke Classic as the official soft drink of the NBA. More and more Sprite advertisements featuring hip hop artists were played, especially during the 1997 and 1998 runs The Bulls had. The NBA had started to become synonymous with hip hop.

Tupac Takes the Blame

But, just before the season started in 1996, Tupac Shakur was shot and killed. In March of 1997, Biggie Smalls was shot to death. Two of the biggest rappers of their time were gunned down due to what was seen from the public and media as “Gang Violence”.

The following seasons for the NBA saw a general decline in viewership (by early 2000 it had dipped into the high 2’s). As ratings fell steadily into the 2004 season, the Malice at the Palace happened. Ron Artest had walked into the crowd, punching a fan. Whether the fan deserved it or not is still argued to this day, but the following season was the NBA’s worst season ratings wise to date; 2.0. The NBA had fallen in popularity among viewers and in the meantime drove many casual fans away from the game using the term “Thug League” as their excuse.

But why thug league? Why not gang league? Or punk league? Or how come it wasn’t the sentence “Too gang related for me”? Or “I can’t stand rap music?” How did it become so shortened to two simple words that could sum it up so quickly and be so universally used and understood?

For this, I point to one of the most famous rapper’s tattoos, and one that he has become synonymous for, just like the NBA and Hip Hop had become synonymous. Tupac gallantly displayed across his stomach two words “Thug Life”.

Tupac Shakur

Source: Instagram
Tupac Shakur

NBA Rebounds

The NBA is making a ratings come back.  It hovers closer to a 3.0 for each season now, with its global market growing as rapidly as ever.  There are more players coming in from the European and South American Leagues stiffening competition and broadening the horizon of basketball, the popularity of superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant only drawing more people to watch as they polarize the viewer.

The meteoric rise of the NBA, Hip Hop, and Sprite was only matched by its precipitous fall.  But the NBA is making a steady climb back up hill which has been noticed by Disney and rewarded with a large rights contract.  The NBA has never been so popular with so much room to grow.