Riley Curry is having a breakout year. She’s become the biggest name of this year’s NBA playoffs.
Sure, she’s only two-and-a-half years old, but after taking center stage at her father Steph Curry’s press conferences over the past month, it’s for good reason: she is, objectively speaking, probably one of the most adorable children in the world.
A cute kid, coupled with a winning season, seems to have a big impact on public perception. The same year that Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul appeared in a commercial with his son, his Q rating, which measures a person’s promotional power and public likeability, rose from 13 to 18. This year, Steph Curry’s Q rating is 26, which is higher than LeBron James’.
Riley made yet another post-game appearance last week in the middle of a hard-fought series between the Curry's team, the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets. Clips from the interview went viral and set the stage for even more baby love: viewers can watch Riley telling her dad to quiet down, or yawning, or singing, or playing hide-and-go-seek. Depending on who you ask, she’s the epitome of a free black girl, this season’s real MVP, or the reason kids should be banned altogether from post game pressers. On June 3rd, ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter even put together a reel of her greatest hits.
After the Golden State Warriors initial victory over LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in last night's kick off to this year’s NBA Finals, Riley Curry was no where to be seen. But don't worry - Riley’s got a few more post-game press conferences and, potentially, a championship celebration, to win over the rest of America’s hearts. In a media environment in which every detail of a professional athlete's life can be fodder for endorsements and fan attention, cute kids have become an increasingly important part of brand building for today’s sports stars.
A sports baby can be defined as the progeny of pro athletes who, by virtue of their cuteness and their parents’ fame, become something of a household name. And Riley Curry isn't alone. There’s also Derrick Rose, Jr., a toddler who May 10th joined his NBA All-Star dad on stage for a post-game presser and stole the show. Tim Duncan’s grammar-school aged kids were a hit at last year’s NBA Finals celebration, cutely playing with 2014 NBA Champions caps and even answering a question from the reporters. Riley's dad Steph was once a sports kid himself, regularly photographed and interviewed throughout his dad Dell’s long and illustrious NBA career.
In the public’s imagination, the children of professional athletes are reminders that sports stars are just ordinary people with families of their own. Now, thanks in large part to social media, our relationship to those kids has drastically changed. Sports babies now have their own branded Instagram accounts, appear in press conferences, and may even accompany their fathers in advertisements. Those kids become an important part of their parent’s public personas, a reason to love an already loveable player, or to tolerate a player you hate. The kids — and their parents, and their parents’ sports — have a larger platform than ever before due to the proliferation of social media sites and sport fan blogs. That platform has in recent years been used to help bolster star athletes’ appeal to fans.
Take Chris Paul, II (aka “Little Crisp”), six-year-old son of Clippers point guard Chris Paul. In 2013, a year after making his own press conference debut, he appeared alongside his dad in a State Farm commercial and now has an Instagram account with more than 200,000 followers, on which he posts pictures of himself doing things like traveling, skiing, and attending press conferences. Little Crisp is undoubtedly cute and camera-ready, but he’s also been incredibly important to his dad’s image: In 2011, after a bad breakup with his previous team, the New Orleans Hornets, Chris Paul was at the center of a megatrade that managed to break the hearts of fans in both New Orleans and Los Angeles’s Laker Nation. Little Crisp’s ascension proved was the ultimate proof of Paul's rehabilitated image with the Clippers.
"I think [sports babies] can definitely have an impact on a player's brand," says Russell Scibetti, a sports analyst whose website, "The Business of Sports", examines brand management and corporate sponsorships. "Ultimately the people making purchasing decisions aren't the most avid fans, so anything that increases a player's awareness is good."
Scibetti notes that in the case of Paul, the attention lavished on Little Crisp — especially after he poked fun at Blake Griffin at a press conference — "transcended what may or may not have happened on the court." People don't remember if Paul had a good game or a bad one.
Not everyone's jumping on the sports babies' bandwagon. Sportswriter Brian Windhorst voiced one of the year's most unpopular opinions when he wrote on Twitter in May 2015, "Steph Curry's kid is cute. That doesn't mean she should have been at presser. There are professionals on deadlines there with jobs to do, too."
There are parenting concerns as well. Athletes are constantly negotiating boundaries around their own public image — adding children creates another layer of complexity. In response to a debate about whether kids like Riley Curry should be allowed at press conferences, former NBA player and current TV analyst Charles Barkley said on TNT to colleagues, "I would have never brought my daughter to a press conference personally."
LeBron James also straddles the thin line between celebrating and overexposing his kids on social media. He only selectively shares information about his two older sons and has yet to publicly release a photo of his infant daughter, Zhuri, born last October. Even Steph Curry has told reporters that he's only willing to put up with exposing Riley to the public up to a point. "Riley has no idea what's going on," he told reporters after a recent Warriors practice in Oakland. "We like it like that. Just keep letting her be a fun-loving little girl growing up."
But the increasing exposure of the children of athletes matters for other reasons. The celebration of NBA fatherhood is a big deal. Less than 20 years ago, players — most of whom are young black men — were victims of a relentless culture war that painted them as serial womanizers and deadbeat dads. In May of 1998, Sports Illustrated ran a now-infamous cover story titled "Where's Daddy?" about how fathering out of wedlock had become "commonplace" and high profile athletes in a variety of sports seemed "oblivious to the legal, financial, and emotional consequences" of their sexual affairs. The recent shift toward celebrating sports babies shows illuminates a loving, caring side of black fatherhood.
There's likely no harm being done to the kid, their parents, or the profession. Sure, sports is a business. But it's also entertainment, and there's perhaps no story that's more heartwarming in American culture than a good dad with a cute kid. It's nice to finally see well-rounded images of black parenting on such a grand scale.
And who doesn't love an adorable baby?
Jamilah King is a Brooklyn-based writer from San Francisco who covers race, culture and sexuality. She's currently senior editor at Colorlines, where she blogs about race and culture.