NBA On TV Today …

I want to talk about the NBA today; so, let me begin with an observation from Bob Molinaro last week in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot:

Must-miss TV: It won’t help sagging NBA ratings that the injury-plagued, can’t-tell-the-players-without-a-scorecard Warriors — now 3-13 after a 142-94 national TV loss to Dallas — are scheduled for two dozen more nationwide appearances. You’d think ESPN and TNT would alter their schedules to avoid the league’s most unwatchable team. Not even Steve Kerr wants to watch this team.”

The prevailing media narrative is that the NBA is at the cutting edge of everything and that the NFL is mired in the Jurassic Period – – except that the NFL figured out how to do “flex scheduling” about 15 years ago and the NBA has not caught on yet.

Bob Molinaro is right; the NBA’s ratings are indeed sagging this year as compared to last year which was a down year as compared to the prior year.  You are not likely to hear much about that on ESPN, but the numbers don’t lie:

  • Eight of the first 10 games aired on TNT had lower ratings than the comparable game from last season.
  • Nine games this year (counting ones on ESPN and TNT) have failed to attract 1 million viewers according to Nielsen.  In all of the last regular season, there were only 19 games with that small a viewership; we are only about 20% into this season.

It is still far too early to make gloom-and-doom extrapolations for NBA TV performance this season, but I do think there are a few factors that play into the early season ratings decline:

  • There are 30 NBA teams; in about 24 of those markets, there is no realistic hope of the local team making it to the NBA Finals let alone winning it all.  With MLB just ended and with college football and the NFL hitting the most interesting parts of their seasons, those fans in those markets are turning to things that are more interesting.
  • The players don’t care about these early regular-season games either.  Forget the fact that you can watch players “dogging it” on the floor in just about every game you watch; remember that “load management” for star players has been going on for the last two to three weeks.  “Load management” is management-speak for “playing hooky”.  The big difference though is that if a kid plays hooky, a truant officer may be out looking for him to put him in school; in the NBA, the coaches, owners and league officials go out of their way to justify it.
  • Highly visible star players – – Kevin Durant and Steph Curry as examples – – are injured and not on display while the most highly anticipated player since LeBron James – Zion Williamson – is also injured and not on display.

Among all these problems – – which are not getting very much play in the mass media – – NBA Commish, Adam Silver, is musing over scheduling changes some of which are:

  • Cut the regular season from 82 games to 78 games.  [Good start, Commish.  Now, get serious and cut the regular season to anywhere between 58 and 65 games.]
  • Create an in-season tournament involving all 30 teams.  The idea is to use regularly scheduled games to identify six division winners and then to add two teams based on the best other records and have that lead to a single-elimination round among those 8 teams.  [It is not clear to me that this will generate interest in markets where the team is on track to win 20-25 games in a season nor is it clear why the players would give a rat’s ass about this event.  Color me disinterested…]
  • Making the 7th and 8th slots in the NBA playoffs a play-in event.  The idea here is that the regular season will determine the teams finishing 7th thru 10th in each conference.  Under this idea, numbers 7 and 8 would play single elimination for the 7th seed and then the teams finishing 9th and 10th would play for the 8th seed.  [Currently 16 out of 30 (53.3%) teams make the playoffs.  Under the new proposal, 20 of the 30 teams (66.6%) of the teams would make the playoffs.  This is the Great Leap Backwards.]

Note that simple flex scheduling – the thing that the troglodytes in the NFL do – is not on the table for discussion.  The NBA is awash in cash thinks to the new TV rights deals that they signed several years ago; the owners are making money and the players are being highly compensated.  So, instead of worrying about how everyone involved here can make even more money – – surely not a bad idea for a business entity – – where is the thinking that says:

  • One way to make more money is to make the product better so that more people will want to consume more of it?

As they sometimes say in sports radio, “I’ll hang up and listen to your answer…”

And for the record, the NFL’s implementation of flex scheduling is far more complicated than the NBA’s implementation would generally be.  In order to move a game from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night, teams in 4 cities have to adjust and fans in 2 cities have to adjust their plans.  For many of the NBA games one could imagine flexing, the only change would be which city to send the national broadcasters to.  In plenty of cases, the starting time would not change at all.

Finally, in keeping with NBA stuff today, here is a comment from Greg Cote of the Miami Herald:

Another NBA milestone: LeBron became the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double against all 30 teams. That requires two things: 1) Being really good, and 2) Switching teams a fair amount.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…….