Many NBA fans have been surprised to learn that NBA ratings fell in 2019. Despite compelling storylines, ESPN, TNT, and NBA TV viewership is “down 15% year-to-year overall,” reports Variety. There are many possible reasons for the decline but people are just not watching the NBA like they used to.
Adam Silver is not averse to the idea of radical change. And the league’s front office is proposing drastic changes to the NBA calendar in order to draw fans back into the fold.
The NBA could look very different in a few years
As ESPN reports, the potential revisions involve creating a new in-season tournament as well as a postseason play-in tournament. This could give teams with little to no hope of winning the title something to play for. It could possibly involve reseeding the final two rounds of the playoffs, too.
The biggest issue is the buy-in. How would you take this tournament from the realm of a gimmick and make it something worth caring about? How do you incentivize viewership for these games? The easiest analogy for a tournament like this would be the national and continental cups seen in soccer leagues around the world.
But none of the major American sports leagues have ever attempted to establish extra trophies as a tradition. “Rings or bust” culture frames the narrative around nearly every NBA superstar. In all likelihood, the regular season and the playoffs will still be the arena where teams are judged.
What’s in a mid-season tournament for the players?
It’s even more difficult to imagine why players would invest in this tournament. Load management has been a PR boondoggle for the NBA, and these proposals do nothing to help the issue. Shortening the regular season to 78 games is not a meaningful change; it’s just enough to say changes have been made.
Players like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, whose NBA finals performances will define their legacies more than anything else, will still be better off managing their loads in order to peak during the playoffs. If they can do so without sacrificing a place in the standings, then it’s even better.
The rumored $1 million prize for tournament winners would entice role players who haven’t earned big NBA contracts. But for made men who already have the max deal — the same stars who would convince people to tune in — there’s nothing tangible to play for.
A postseason play-in tournament could also make the regular season more irrelevant, as it could make the final few weeks before the playoffs more exciting. More than half of the NBA already makes the playoffs in the current format. And the team that wins a spot in the playoffs through this tournament is likely walking into a blowout defeat in the first round.
At first glance, these proposed changes to the season wouldn’t solve any of the problems that the NBA allegedly wants to fix.
How much change is actually necessary for the NBA?
Is the product of the NBA in such a bad place? Maybe it’s less about the lack of stakes or the perception that stars take too many games off and more about the way the games are marketed.
For decades, the NBA has been selling a handful of stars instead of teams or even the sport of basketball itself — a strategy that’s paid off handsomely for the league. Maybe it’s time for the marketing to change, rather than the entire structure of the league.
The NBA hasn’t had this much talent in a long time, and most teams have at least one player worth getting excited about. Plus, the pace and skill level of most games make for an entertaining viewing experience. Perhaps it would be better for everyone involved if they kept the season as it is and showed viewers why teams that aren’t at the top of the conference are still valuable.
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