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What Can be Done to Save the NBA?

Scott Morris | February 10, 2024
What can be done to save the NBA?

During the 2022-23 NBA season, the average broadcast of a game pulled in 1.5 million viewers. If you don’t know anything about sports and television viewership, you might think that’s a pretty big number. On this past Christmas Day, the NBA televised its usual five games. The five games always feature the league’s top teams like last year’s NBA champs, the Denver Nuggets. 

Denver played Golden State, another popular draw, on Dec. 25 and drew 4.1 million viewers. Wow, you might think. Even better was the Lakers-Celtics Christmas Day game that drew 5 million viewers. In total, the five games on Dec. 25 totaled 14.36 million viewers. Sounds like a lot, right?

This year, with Christmas on a Monday, the NFL decided to play three games opposite the NBA. The least-watched of the three NFL games on Christmas Day drew … wait for it … 27.1 million viewers! Yeah, one NFL game had double the amount of viewers that five NBA games had.

It’s a continuing problem and the league faces some challenges. Commissioner Adam Silver has his work cut out for himself. What will he do to save the NBA?

The Regular Season

The NBA regular season is just too long. There is really no one other than television networks and advertisers (NBA owners too!) that welcome more regular season NBA games. More games, of course, means more money in the pockets of those involved. The NBA begins play in October. That is the heart of football season. The NFL and college football dominate the air waves from September through January. That’s obvious when you compare TV ratings.

With an 82-game schedule, the NBA season winds on from October to April – six months…1230 games…all to weed out 10 teams from any form of postseason play. It’s almost hard to believe that the 82-game schedule has been around since 1967. What it has led to are the things that fans hate – tanking, load management, and more injuries. The only thing that fixes this problem is fewer regular season games. We already have an example.

The COVID Season

When COVID hit early in 2020, the NBA season, like those in other sports, was suspended. The teams that qualified to go to the Orlando bubble played a total of 71 to 75 games. Even that was too many. There have been a variety of proposals, but the optimal number seems to be somewhere in the 66-game range. There really is no reason for the NBA season to stretch into the early summer. 

Shortening the season is easier said than done. There will be pushback from advertisers, TV networks, and, more importantly, players. Fewer games will impact contracts and how players are paid. While the superstars of the league won’t have much to worry about, it’s the second-tier players that would suffer the most (if you can call making a few million dollars a year suffering). 

Silver has addressed this issue with some ideas. One is to play 40-minute games instead of 48-minute games. Another is to do something that Silver and the league instituted this season – the NBA In-Season Tournament.

The In-Season Tournament

For the first time ever, the NBA held an in-season tournament. Certain games on the NBA schedule were designated as tournament games. They counted toward the 82-game schedule for each team and the great thing about them was that they were more meaningful. The league had certain monetary incentives in place and teams played harder in November in December than they ever have. 

NBA all star game ratings

NBA all star game ratings – click to enlarge

The in-season tournament also had an effect on TV ratings. More viewers tuned in during the in-season tournament games than to the same games played at the same time last year. Silver could potentially shave off 20 or so games from the current NBA schedule and replace some with in-season tournament games. Fewer games – as well as IST games – would make the regular season more meaningful.  A regular season could theoretically start later and end earlier, which many players – i.e. LeBron James is on board – and coaches (Steve Kerr too) would endorse.

The NBA will likely never reach the popularity of the NFL, but the league has to do something to save a declining viewership. This year’s All-Star game is coming on Sunday, Feb. 18. Last year’s game attracted 4.59 million viewers. That is the least amount of viewers to ever watch an NBA All-Star game.



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