Being a huge NBA enthusiast, I couldn’t help but take deep interest in the developing story around the NBA referee controversy. A week ago, news broke that Tim Donaghy fixed point margins and NBA game outcomes to pay off gambling debts. And since then, it has quickly become one of the most credibility-crushing events that the NBA has ever seen. NBA referees have already been under incredible scrutiny about shady calls and now the credibility of the entire NBA is in question.
I for one have always been skeptical about “star” calls and referee bias, but this turn of events has made me wonder even more. But questions about referee calls will probably never be resolved, even after the NBA makes it out of this mess.
What interests me most is what this means for the relationship between the NBA and its fans. Chris Sheridan of ESPN discussed this issue, asking the question: What can the NBA do to repair the relationship with its shrinking fan base? According to Sheridan, the NBA should “worry about restoring its integrity with the fans who have stuck around…because the hardcore fans are the lifeblood of any professional sports league.”
In essence, Sheridan’s “mandate” is a question of public relations…that question being: What can the organization do to repair a relationship with its strongest supporters, once those supporters’ trust is betrayed?
Research from scholars like John Ledingham, Stephen Bruning, James Grunig, and others identifies several variables that determine the strength of a relationship between an organization and its public. Most of them fall under 4 categories: Trust, Satisfaction, Commitment, and Control Mutuality (or the level of control publics have within the organization).
The issue the NBA faces would appear to be an issue of trust, but that would be a hasty conclusion. Sure, fans’ trust has been betrayed, but launching a “trust” campaign–which the NBA will ultimately do–might not be the most effective strategy. No matter how strong a variable trust seems to be, research has shown that control mutuality and satisfaction are the strongest…and since it can be argued that satisfaction is a composite of the 3 variables, control mutuality rises to the top here.
For years, fans have wanted a stronger voice in the decisions of their favorite sports, not the least of which is the NBA. Up until now, the only option has been to yell at the TV at a bad call, curse team management, or express their dismay while attending games. Basically, the fan has no voice in the NBA, outside of selecting the players for the All-Star game.
Maybe it’s time the Commish hands over some of the control to the fans–his most important public. This is more than just an issue of improved transparence in NBA officiating, it’s recognizing the fan in NBA issues like this. Obviously, rule by the masses is not what I’m preaching here, but the Commish has to figure out a way to amplify the voice of the fan in league decisions and issues. Trust and commitment will follow, leading to satisfaction and a better NBA will emerge from this controversy.