The NBA Dunk Contest Is Obsolete

I am, by the standards of NBA fans, an old man. Even though I’m just 44, basketball’s demographic has always skewed more toward the Millennials, Zoomers, and whatever they’re going to call the generation that’s already started but who are going to be defined by being too young to have watched LeBron James play basketball—or if they do remember him, they’ll remember him the way kids born in the mid-’90s remember Michael Jordan, as “that old guy on the Wizards who used to be good.”

Unlike baseball, where being a 44-year-old MLB fan makes you a kid by that league’s standards (I’ve read that the average baseball fan is something like 58 years old), basketball is the sport of the Internet Generation. This goes double because of the sport’s connection to the city, and that combination of young and urban fans is exactly why the NBA is perfectly positioned to be successful in 2022.

Yet there’s a touch of the old-school in basketball, and it’s on display as All-Star Weekend finally returns to the middle of February where it belongs. The slam dunk contest is tonight as I write this, and I—a guy who loves basketball enough to have consistently maintained a blog about it for over six years of my life and who has on occasion been paid to write about it—won’t be watching.

“Why not?”, you might sensibly ask. After all, some of the most iconic moments in NBA history happened not in actual basketball games but on Saturday nights during All-Star weekend. Jordan taking off from the foul line. Vince Carter getting Kenny Smith to lose his mind and yell “it’s over, ladies and gentlemen, it’s over!” The epic battle between Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine in 2016. Blake Griffin jumping over a car. Dominique Wilkins doing…well, everything the Human Highlight Film ever did in his career of never winning anything in the playoffs. Larry Nance (senior and junior) and “Dr. J” Julius Erving and everyone else who has ever passed through the hallowed courts of All-Star Weekend.

And my answer is simple.

The best parts are going to be on YouTube, so instead of watching a TV broadcast with commercials and long waits between actual dunks, I’ll watch the highlights after someone who isn’t me took the time to compile all of them.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point. I’ve mentioned in this space that I disconnected from social media back at the end of 2020 in a (wonderfully successful!) New Year’s resolution in 2021 to stop engaging with things that make me stupidly angry for no good reason (why hello there, politics…)

If you’re on Twitter, you both can and cannot enjoy the dunk contest the way I just described, skipping the show and watching the highlights the way you used to be able to do when ESPN’s “SportsCenter” was the cultural gold standard before Twitter was invented.

You can, because much in the way we used to do the Breakfast Special around here, you can go on Twitter after the show is over, search whatever invented hashtag the NBA or TNT told people to tweet with, and all the tweets with video of the best dunk on them will be right there. Or you can go on YouTube (what I’m going to do) for curated highlights, available from the league itself. However “kids today” (like I said at the top of this, I’m old) consume media, the dunk contest will be there.

But on the other hand, you can’t be on social media tonight and fully enjoy the dunk contest after the fact. It’s like missing the premiere of a popular TV show and trying to avoid spoilers.

But liveblogging the dunk contest carries with it its own set of hazards. For one thing, you’re going to have to deal with all the other toxicity that permeates social media, and you’re going to have to sort through a plethora of bad takes and stupid ideas. Someone’s going to bring their politics into it, and you’re going to run into a slew of both “wokescolds” and racists. Twitter sucks. It’s why I left.

But if you’re on there, all the wonder will be taken out of the show if you’re not watching it along with everyone else. When I go on YouTube late tonight or early tomorrow, I’m not going to know much about what happened during the dunk contest. I’m going to be taken on the journey the way guys like Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick took me on sports journeys back when I was a teenager and later a young man in the 1990s.

One could argue that the NBA’s TV coverage of its own dunk contest, or maybe even the games itself, is obsolete. A made-for-TV spectacle has to contend with the fact that nobody watches TV anymore, at least not in the sense that “watch TV” used to mean before the Internet was invented.

TNT is broadcasting the dunk contest, but they’re broadcasting it to Twitter and, via the NBA itself and countless commentators, to YouTube, and to TikTok, and everywhere else except for an actual television in someone’s actual living room.

This creates another problem…and it’s the same problem “cord cutting” has been causing for sports since ESPN started saber-rattling about potentially canceling Monday Night Football due to the NFL rights deal costing them more than advertising revenue from a Monday night show.

What is the dunk contest going to look like under the NBA’s next media deal? With TV viewership shrinking, the traditional TV networks aren’t going to want to shell out huge amounts of money to televise the league—they’ll still do it, but for less money, and that’s a whole other think piece when the next collective bargaining agreement’s being negotiated and hello there, MLB writers!

That’s when the NBA is going to have to figure out a way to hold a made-for-TV spectacle…when the only word that’s still relevant in that sentence is a word that can be distilled to a minute-long YouTube short or whatever a TikTok post is called or a tweet.

The dunk contest as currently constituted is obsolete, and the multitude of people who will be watching the dunk contest without ever turning on a television are going to be the driving force behind the NBA confronting an increasingly uncertain media future.