This week, the NBA proposed shortening the regular season to 78 games from 82, creating a midseason mini-tournament, introducing a playoff play-in and reseeding the postseason halfway through.
NBA teams haven’t exactly taken to the streets to celebrate this bold vision. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski – the league’s Hedda Hopper – described “some” league executives as “skeptical” about it.
No doubt. Fewer games means a financial haircut at the gate. Which of us is likely to go to whoever owns the company and say, “I am totally on board with this idea where your employees do less work while you make less money.”
When I asked Raptors president Masai Ujiri about it, he demurred – “I will keep my mouth shut.”
So call the process to turn this proposal into reality a fight happening on a slight incline.
But however complicated it may be, it’s vital. The NBA is acknowledging what the rest of us have already figured out – that the regular season is fading into insignificance.
For most leagues, they’re more like an extended preseason. For six months, teams pretend-fight each other. It’s more slapping than punching, and too often it’s tickling.
Then half the league gets into the playoffs, the tempo and intensity of the game changes entirely and everything suddenly gets serious. In the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, the difference between the regular- and postseason can make it seem as though you are watching a different sport.
Under those circumstances, what is the purpose of the regular season? It’s not to determine advantageous positioning. It’s to wring as much cash as possible out of ticket buyers and cable-package-having viewers.
In order to do that, people have to believe what they’re watching matters. And maybe it once did – when there were fewer games and fewer teams qualified for the playoffs; when you couldn’t watch every single game everywhere on-demand; when it didn’t seem like you turned on a digital sports hose every night to flood your living room.
It’s possible that people will continue to treat sports like gasoline or milk – a product with inelastic demand.
But fundamentally, sports is not something you need. It’s something you want. What happens if people stop wanting some of it? Say, the October-March part. That would be bad for business. While other leagues are sticking with the more-is-always-better model, the NBA is trying to get out ahead of the future.
Their new model is European soccer. All top leagues there run two parallel competitions – the league and the cup.
If the NBA truly wanted to radicalize their operation, they’d do away with the playoffs altogether, replacing it with a Euro-style system wherein regular-season results determine the champion.
It’s a good idea. It’s the reason people feel they must watch Liverpool vs. Manchester City in November, but no one thinks it is absolutely imperative they watch Washington vs. Colorado in January. One game might determine who wins it all and the other will not. It won’t have any bearing on the ultimate result.
But that way of doing things won’t fly here. Leagues are too invested – literally and figuratively – in the playoff format.
The proposed mini-tournament is a nod toward the European-style cup – a one-and-done run through the entire league. It’s a chance, theoretically, for a team with no hope over the long haul to take a miracle run at a trophy.
In Europe, cups matter. In North America, they won’t. Not at first and maybe not ever.
But it is at least something interesting happening in December – just about the least interesting time in the NBA calendar.
The playoff play-in – seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth finishers in each conference competing for two spots – is another Euro rip-off (that baseball has already copied). It will make the latter part of the regular season interesting for another half-dozen teams.
Reseeding the playoffs at the final-four stage based on regular-season records increases the likelihood that the two best teams – as opposed to the two best teams in their respective conferences – will meet in the final.
This is all progress. If owners have an ounce of sense, they will see that it isn’t a money loser, however much money they end up losing. It’s a hedged bet against some future downturn in demand for their product.
It also isn’t enough.
You needn’t be Milton Friedman to see sports’ biggest future problem – a glut in the supply chain. There’s too much to watch. In order to (legally) watch it, you need about 14 different cable/online packages. Even if you can afford them, there is only so much time in the day.
People have already become sports grazers. They’ll tune in when it’s compelling. This is how a few hundred thousand regular Raptors viewers ballooned into several million bandwagon jumpers over the course of their championship run, and why the numbers dialled back down once the regular season restarted.
The issue is no longer increasing demand. We know how sports demand works – boom and bust. That’s why leagues have formed themselves into revenue-sharing collectives. You want proof socialism works? Ask the most successful capitalists in our midst. They’re big supporters.
Thus, the issue is how to maintain the enormous amount of demand you already have. You do that by manufacturing scarcity. You have to convince people to grab what you’re offering lest you run out of it. That’s what the off-season is for – reminding people how much they miss basketball/hockey/baseball.
Sports have been straining against that reality for years. Their goal seems to be creating a seamless, endless season that wraps in all 12 months of the year.
The NBA is taking a baby step in the other direction. Visionary owners – and I remain unconvinced anyone in sport is all that visionary – will follow their lead.