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Why the San Antonio Spurs Can’t Shed Media’s ‘Boring’ Label

The common complaint about the San Antonio Spurs is that they are not “sexy.” And that’s more of an indictment of the media, frankly, than this relatively small-market NBA franchise, which has an irritating habit of playing into the league’s championship round.

The Spurs are certainly low-key in terms of off-court drama. Moreover, they play in a TV market that ranks 36th among the more than 200 in the U.S. and resides in the bottom tier of those home to NBA teams, thus bringing much less ratings-boosting population to the party than stalwarts like Los Angeles (No. 2) and Boston (No. 7). TV execs have been known to gripe about the Spurs deflating tune-in, although the lure of a rematch with the all-star-laden Miami Heat (the No. 16 market, incidentally) after last year’s seven-game thriller should offset that problem.

About the most glamorous development in recent years involving the Spurs has been star point guard Tony Parker’s marriage to and divorce from “Desperate Housewives’” Eva Longoria, and Miami’s Dwyane Wade is engaged to actress Gabrielle Union, so call that a Hollywood push.

Other than that, the team has been defined by and taken its lead from Tim Duncan, a workmanlike star who has played his entire career in San Antonio, accepted a reduced salary in order to help management sign a higher-quality roster and generally been the kind of good pro-athlete citizen who doesn’t provoke much interest from marketers, despite four championship rings.

By contrast, Miami’s LeBron James – while generally heralded as the world’s best basketball player – really came into his own as a media commodity after he announced his divorce from hometown team Cleveland live on national TV, in a self-aggrandizing ESPN special dubbed “The Decision.” Back-to-back NBA titles have made James look like a pretty savvy general manager, but what’s telling is that the hostility his action engendered among many fans – not all of them residing in Ohio – seemingly heightened James’ marketability more than damaging it.

The other signature aspect of the Spurs has been the crotchety nature of coach Gregg Popovich, who has become notorious for treating TV sideline reporters like they are morons. Then again, not many of us would respond kindly if asked inane questions during the most stress-filled parts of our day, so if the Nike fits….

NBA beat writers tend to wax eloquent about the Spurs around this time of year, celebrating the consistency of what many view as a model pro franchise — practicing patience instead of pursuing quick fixes, and exhibiting loyalty on all sides. Yet for the most part, the club still struggles to overcome its “boring”/“ratings killer” image, despite boasting an international roster (with players from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France and Italy) that helpfully buttresses the NBA’s image as a global enterprise.

So while it’s nice that columnists like the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay issued a call to “vanquish the Spurs-are-boring argument,” the fact he felt the need only reinforces how persistent it is – and how in sports, like so many other high-profile media endeavors, attention tends to follow bad behavior. Winning is great, but the squeaky wheels get the grease, and the jerks have a way of sucking up oxygen.

For all the lip-service that gets paid to admiring professionalism, media outlets have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for the kind of blue-collar mentality the Spurs embody – especially when there are so many other lurid sports scandals to distract them an almost day-in, day-out basis.

Whatever the rationale, if the Spurs are deemed “unsexy” in the eyes of the current sports/media environment, with apologies to Justin Timberlake, maybe it’s time to bring unsexy back.

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