How Kevin Durant is Changing the NBA Media

Posted by on July 8th, 2016

On the morning of Independence Day, basketball star Kevin Durant announced his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and take his talents to California to play with the Golden State Warriors. The decision left the sports world in shock with plenty of sports icons, players and pundits declaring their mixed feelings.  While the news will have a lasting impact on the NBA landscape, the method through which Durant announced the decision – in a letter posted on a new media outlet – will have a deeper, lasting impact on the media landscape.

Kevin Durant eschewed an ESPN hosted televised event like LeBron James’ much criticized ‘Decision’ to go to Miami, or let a favorite reporter break the news on Twitter. Instead, he chose to let fans know through The Players Tribune. The Tribune is a new media company that provides athletes with a platform to connect directly with their fans, in their own words. The outlet was created by none other than the imitable Derek Jeter. For several reasons, Durant’s decision to announce on this platform is perhaps more polarizing than his decision to move further west. Hear me out:

  1. First done by LeBron James in 2014 when he announced his return to Cleveland published in Sports Illustrated, Durant’s choice further cemented the concept of connecting directly with his fans and cutting out reporters and producers. Durant was able craft his message in in his own voice leaving nothing for interpretation.
  1. The decision sheds further light on the withering relationship media has with players.In an effort to keep the attention of sports fans, ESPN and other sports outlets have embraced a debate and analysis culture over straight-forward reporting. This culture includes sharp criticism of athletes by media personalities for the sake of compelling conversation. As a result, thin-skinned athletes don’t want to speak or cooperate with a reporter who’s building his/her brand by exposing the athlete’s flaws. When media personalities and athletes begin to quarrel on a national level, it’s no surprise players decide to skip the reporters, who they now view as middle men and opt for direct access to fans.
  1. Plain and simple, athletes no longer need the media. Like Durant and many players before him, competitors can use social media or even pen bylines as opposed to accessing traditional media channels. As a media owner, this event assuredly raised flags in regards to the sustainability of a source of information. When traditional media can no longer secure major announcements for increased ratings, they’ll start to feel the crippling effects of players having agency over their own voices.

For stars like Durant, the Tribune as a distribution channel allows them to strengthen their brand and connect with fans. Tactically, this is a shrewd move.  In the long-term, it will be extremely interesting to see the consequences of these actions. James might have established the precedent with his return to Cleveland, but Durant solidified it with his recent move.

How will this change ESPN, Fox Sports or NBC Sports? Does it ultimately alter the programming of these networks to include more “hot take” debate shows? Only time will tell, but as the NBA prepares for the challenge of a Warriors team loaded with talent, the sports media is preparing for the challenge of competing with the stars they cover to be the primary source of information.