Athletes of past decades playing in big markets such as Los Angeles and New York held favorable advantages in securing endorsements and garnering widespread media attention. All-time great guard Earl Monroe saw his legacy and image expand exponentially when traded to the Knicks in 1972.
Today, however, there is a new paradigm that counters the benefits of big cities that athletes of the past used to increase their wealth and global brand.
Social media, digital programming and the proliferation of cable television has resulted in vast exposure for modern-day athletes. One of the most powerful tools in the world today is social media. It allows millions to interact with star athletes in a way that wasn’t possible in decades past. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, among other social media outlets, have elevated the emotional connections between fans and athletes.
“If I was playing in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me,” Reggie Jackson boasted in 1973 while playing for the Oakland A’s. The reality today is that a superstar the magnitude of Jackson 40 years ago wouldn’t have had to sign with the Yankees, as he did in 1977, to significantly increase his brand and salary.
Perhaps the most profound example of an athlete who has attained vast global popularity and extensive endorsement opportunities in large part as a byproduct of social media, digital programming and cable is Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant is one of the league’s best players and has reaped huge gains from the advancement of technology. Oklahoma City is far from a big market, but exceptional players are seen and heard everywhere today, regardless of whether they are in New York.
The addition of more nationally televised NBA games throughout the week has given core and casual fans access to seeing more players. A follower of the NBA who lives in Sacramento is no longer constrained to only watching Kings games. That same fan now has the ability to watch James Harden of the Houston Rockets or the 2015 league MVP, Stephen Curry of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors, two to three times a week on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV. This ability makes all the difference when asking how the big markets have lost their luster. Fans, especially teens and twentysomething fans both nationally and abroad, are no longer concerned about who you play for, if you are good and have nice sneakers—they will keep supporting.
Star NBA players are now more than ever shying away from New York and Los Angeles. The thinking is, why would a star player bear the pressure of being the next great Laker or bringing the Knicks back to the promised land if there isn’t much more to gain from it than winning a title in San Antonio? Most stars today would rather play for a slightly smaller market with less pressure and still make the same money from endorsements.
“I wanted to come here and take on the pressures of playing in New York,” Carmelo Anthony said in 2013. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, most star athletes are not willing to assume that stress.
When weighing the options, there aren’t any clear reasons to chase the big market. Nike recently matched Under Amour’s 10-year, $275 million deal to Durant less than a year ago, putting him in a more plentiful situation than even Anthony, who plays in a far bigger city. The days of athletes chasing the big market appear to be over.