You've heard the narratives. "No one cares about the Spurs." "The Spurs are overlooked by everyone." "San Antonio is boring." "Same old Spurs." These statements come from both inside and outside of the Spurs fan base. Yes, they've been a part of NBA Finals with some of the lowest TV ratings in history and their most popular player doesn't even crack the NBA's top jersey sale list domestically.
So maybe they're not as popular as they could be at home. But the more interesting question is how popular are the Spurs abroad? We're not just talking about in countries like France and Argentina, but around the world. Are the Spurs as popular as teams like the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers?
An Unlikely Fan Base
Here's a little known fact about this website, besides the United States, Pounding the Rock gets its second most traffic from the Philippines. The Philippines which -- outside of Chip Engelland playing there for a few years -- has no direct connection to the Spurs. As to be expected, the United States blows away every other country as far as page views. But the Philippines nearly triples every other country in terms of traffic.
That got me wondering. Are the Spurs exceptionally popular in the Philippines or are they just part of this overarching basketball craze that has gripped that nation for decades? I contacted Rafe Bartholomew of Grantland, who wrote the book "Pacific Rims: Beerman Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball." Bartholomew, who spent some time in the Southeast Asian island country uncovering their love for hoops, told me that the fact that the Spurs are a popular team in the Philippines has as much to do with the general popularity of the NBA as San Antonio's prolonged excellence.
"Since the Spurs have been among the best teams in the league so consistently for so long, it makes sense that they'd have a very high profile out there," Bartholomew said. "Even if they're not as popular as the Lakers or a handful of other teams."
That makes sense. Even if the Spurs aren't on national TV as much as some would like, they've been in the playoffs every year for the last 15 years, so they're going to be seen around the world a lot. If you read Pacific Rims, you learn that Filipinos play below the rim more than above it and therefore can get really creative when finishing around the basket. Given that, Bartholomew thinks Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are fan favorites among the Filipino fan base because of their creativity around the rim.
"Manu's "Euro step" has been part of the Philippine game for 30 years and possibly longer," Bartholomew said. "It's called the "side step" there, and they probably have as much of a claim on originating it or developing it on their own as any other basketball-playing nation."
Gauging The Spurs Against Other Contenders
During our conversation, Bartholomew questioned where the Spurs' popularity stacked up against the rest of the NBA. This is certainly not concrete proof the Spurs have a bigger following in the Philippines than others, but it's a good start. I asked SB Nation's own Seth Pollack for some help determining where the Spurs stand, as far as hits, specifically in the Philippines. Given Kobe Bryant's popularity there and the fact that the Lakers are the Lakers, regardless of what country you're in, this isn't surprising.
However, what was surprising was to find that PtR got more hits from the Philippines than Hot Hot Hoops, the Miami Heat's SB Nation site. First off, the Heat are one of the two or three most popular teams in the league, the two time defending champions and have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They also are coached by Erik Spoelstra, a half Filipino whose popularity has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. This could be a site specific thing, but I find it interesting that San Antonio's popularity rivals the Heat anywhere outside of South Texas. PtR's traffic in the Philippines also dwarfs Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks SB Nation sites internationally. So take that, Mark Cuban!
Other Examples of the Spurs popularity overseas
The random popularity of the Spurs in the Philippines might be the most interesting example of their popularity, but it's not the only example. Tony Parker's Q score seems to have grown overseas. The NBA's marketing office tells me Parker's international jersey sales were in the top 20 last season. He also is the most high profile endorser of Peak shoes, a Chinese shoe company trying to break their way in to the U.S. market. You've seen the shoes before, the logo looks very similar to the old Apex shoes. George Hill also wears Peak. While the company's hope is increased sales in the U.S., the deal will only help Parker's popularity in China.
What about the future?
While it's unclear whether the Spurs popularity will continue, they do have a pipeline of non-US players like Davis Bertans, Adam Hanga and Livio Jean-Charles. But does that mean international interest will continue to grow regardless of franchise success, or would a year or two out of the playoffs mean waning influence abroad? My guess is, the Three Amigos retiring or leaving would mean a dip in the Spurs influence abroad, but only if there's a long rebuild resulting in a few years of missing the playoffs. What do you Pounders think?