Addressing The Problem With The NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Posted on February 16, 2014 | in Basketball, Problem Solving, Root Cause Analysis, Sponsorships, Sports | by
john wall slam dunk contest

John Wall “won” the NBA Slam Dunk Contest yesterday but the odd format changes overshadowed his victory.

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest has been a cornerstone event during the NBA All-Star Weekend for years – originating in the NBA in 1984, it celebrates captivating physical feats and showmanship through impressive dunks with flair. However, interest in the contest – from NBA stars and fans alike – has dwindled since the early 1990s. From Wikipedia (yeah, I know):

Initially, it was because many players lost interest in competing; some cited concerns of injuries, while others felt that the full repertoire of humanly possible dunks had already been exhausted. With most of the superstars – (Michael) Jordan, (Dominique) Wilkins, (Clyde) Drexler, etc. – choosing not to participate, lesser-known players began to compete, leading to either watered-down competitions or surprises.

Let’s assume those reasons (from the 1990s) are true. The NBA has changed the format of the contest over the years that only sometimes addressed the suggested causes of disinterest – they found ways to reduce the number of dunks needed to win (minimizing injury risk), they allowed unlimited dunk attempts to complete a round (a la Nate Robinson) so that new innovative dunks could be attempted, they created a tournament format with head-to-head battles, they allowed fan voting for winners via text messaging, and then this year they introduced a conference vs. conference format.

Well all these changes should continually make the event better, right? Well, it didn’t. Last night’s event, with the format consisting of three rounds – a battle round between conferences, head-to-head battles between players from each conference, then a final three-way battle between remaining representatives from each conference to determine which conference wins. Way confusing, and a failure in the fact that the three players from the Eastern Conference swept their second round matchups, making the third round unnecessary. (Fans used text message voting to select the dunker of the night, a title given to Washington’s John Wall.)

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michael jordan slam dunk contest

Enough about last night’s disaster that now makes everyone wonder what the NBA is doing with the Slam Dunk Contest. The NBA is probably asking “How do we fix the NBA Slam Dunk Contest?” and they’re likely missing the point. Each format change has been an attempt to drum up interest and participation, but the results haven’t been ideal because root causes of disinterest haven’t been addressed.

However, let’s look at this through a continuous improvement lens by asking some better key questions.

– What is the actual purpose of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest?
– What is/are the problem(s) the NBA should be looking to solve with the Slam Dunk Contest?
– What are the root causes of those identified problems?

Starting with the first question, I was unable to find a purpose statement online for the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. I’d like to think it is a contest for the best and most creative slam dunks possible. Format aside, who should be allowed to participate? Should the participation be limited to NBA All-Stars elected for the All-Star Game? Or should participation be opened up beyond the NBA? There are probably some great dunkers playing in Europe, China, or even on the playgrounds who are high-flying acrobatic athletes but aren’t good enough to play in the NBA. NBA teams are smarter these days – roster sizes are finite and greater priority is placed on other in-game skills such as rebounding and defense as opposed to dunking ability. Also bear in mind that this is a contest and not a 48-minute game that counts in the league standings. There are likely lots of people in the world who can dunk well but are bad at basketball – this is a competition in which they can excel!

Early suggestions about primary problems with the dunk contest include low fan interest and low star player participation. I would include sponsor interest in this list too, because reduced interest by stars and fans means that this marketing property is much less valuable. Also, lower fan interest is most heavily caused by low star player interest. So let’s say that the biggest problem with the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is low star player participation.

Now we look at the root causes for low star player participation. Injury risk is a top reason. NBA All-Star Weekend now lists a whole bunch of events besides the game itself – shooting competitions, skills competition, rookies vs. sophomores game, etc. Maybe those events are pulling star players away from the dunk contest. Other causes could be lack of valuable incentive (financial or otherwise), lack of creativity (we’ve exhausted all the permutations of propless dunks), too much creativity with use of props, odd formats, the need for a mid-season break from basketball activities, or even fear of embarrassment if stars don’t make their dunks.

Instead of directly addressing each of these root causes and even validating them by polling star players across the league (which they may have done but failed to address concerns), the league has fiddled with formatting that leave fans and players confused and takes away from the competition element.

Yes, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is really a meaningless contest that has no effect on the NBA championship, but if the NBA is going to try to improve a big event it holds annually they should at least try to improve it properly.

Other fun NBA Slam Dunk Contest articles:
SBNation’s coverage
SI.com’s coverage
Slam Dunk Contest at Wikipedia
Deadspin’s coverage
ESPN.com – new format leaves players, fans, and television confused
ESPN.com – format overshadows great dunks

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