We know pro wrestling isn't a sport. Vince McMahon famously (and perhaps apocryphally) snarled at Ted Turner, "I'm not in the 'rasslin business; I'm in the entertainment business." However, while I watched the taping of WWE Smackdown in Charlotte on Tuesday night, I couldn't help but think of the lessons WWE could teach the NBA.
A basic requirement for a great pro wrestling story as it develops over the course of weeks, months, or years, is that the audience must not know what will happen next. Matches or storylines with obvious or known conclusions turn the audience against the whole show. For quick and brutal confirmation, watch the first ten minutes of Brock Lesnar's match against Goldberg at Wrestlemania XX
, held after it was announced that Lesnar would leave the company to pursue a career in the NFL. Everyone in the arena knew Lesnar would lose, and they voiced their displeasure with the farce.
The twist that happened at the end of this week's Smackdown is ridiculous, cliche, and has been done a million times before. Yet the crowd went nuts, because they didn't expect it in this particular instance. It's different from the understanding that outcomes are predetermined. We know that WWE plans stories and match outcomes in advance, and this twist was certainly predetermined, but people still got pleasure out of watching because, as with any great serial, the twists come out of nowhere and surprises are plentiful.
When sports are at their best, they're totally surprising. Here's how it's supposed to work: In any given NBA game, we know the favorite has a very good chance of winning, but understand that through various factors the underdog might win. We don't fully expect either outcome and take delight in seeing how it plays out and being surprised. Edge feuds with Triple H. Both characters are talented wrestlers at the top of their games. No one's certain who will win from match to match. Buy the next pay per view to find out!
The NBA's problem is in how league fandom actually works: NBA fans expect a certain outcome from most games in a way unique to them. If the Spurs face the Bulls in San Antonio, we expect the Spurs to win, and if the Bulls pull off the upset on the road, we'll analyze how the Bulls bucked what "should" have happened. Note the Warriors' playoff upset over the Mavs a couple years back. It shook the league to its foundation because "should" was turned on its head. This attitude simply doesn't exist in the other major sports. Football fans are fatalists, knowing that one random bounce of the ball can destroy a playoff run. Baseball fans embrace the long grind of the regular season and then have trouble adjusting to the short series in the playoffs. In the NBA, it's a catastrophe when a team that "should" win doesn't.
If the NBA wants to address its trust issues, brought on by years of whispers and pushed over the edge by the Tim Donaghy scandal, it has to convince fans that they don't know what will happen before it happens. They've got to convince me that each game holds the promise of surprise. Few doubt the NBA's results are predetermined, but it's just as bad that any knowledgable fan can pick the playoff teams before the season starts with no problem thinking it over.
Here's where all this is leading. I've devised the 14/16 Hypothesis
. Put simply, consensus of the crowd will correctly pick 14 of the 16 NBA playoff teams before the season. Let's test it. The poll ends when the season starts
. Have at.