The NBA’s hottest trend is shelving star players for regular season games. Resting players to keep them fresh is sound competitive strategy. But, it’s also terrible for the entertainment product, especially when said games are aired nationally.
Adding an extra week to the schedule for more days off is the NBA’s half (or quarter) measure to address the overworked player problem. The simple, effective solution – scheduling fewer regular season games – would be unpalatable to owners who want the home game revenue.
This controversy, however, hits a much bigger issue than player odometers. Teams benching star players eliminates even the last flimsy pretense that NBA regular season games matter. The uncomfortable truth is they don’t, which is a problem when your business is selling regular season games to television networks.
Every league has a playoff/regular season balance conundrum. Expanding the playoff makes the regular season less consequential. The NBA playoffs provide a second, very compelling season which is awesome. But, it dramatically undercuts the preliminary competition.
More than half the NBA teams (16/30) reach the playoffs. If the season were to end today, three (Bucks, Pistons, Nuggets) would qualify with losing records. It’s hard to foresee a scenario where a good team would actually miss the playoffs short of a devastating injury. During the NBA regular season there just is not much at stake.
The NBA’s present power dynamics compound the problem. The league right now resembles the EPL. It’s different in the long term. There’s more parity with the draft and salary cap. But, entering an individual season, you know who the five or six best teams will be almost every year.
That structure is okay for the EPL. The regular season is the competition. The top five/six teams compete for the best record. Each time they meet it’s a monumental occasion. EPL teams do rest players, but seldom in the league itself where each match counts.
If the EPL had a similar structure to the NBA, it would be divided into conferences. There would be no relegation. The closest approximation would be four teams reaching the playoffs from each conference, with a play-in game between teams No. 4 and teams No. 5.
Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool would make it from the north almost every year. Ditto for Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham in the south. The games just wouldn’t matter as much. One could see Manchester City shelving Sergio Aguero for a match against Arsenal because they had a big Champions League match midweek.
Leagues can’t take fans for granted anymore. The problem for the NBA with teams being strategic and realizing that regular season games, even the big ones, don’t matter is that fans, becoming more analytic in their own right, will do so as well. Scratch that. Fans are already doing so.
Local NBA ratings on regional sports networks are down. The Clippers-Bulls Saturday night game was the lowest-rated NBA broadcast game in about a decade for about two weeks. The 1.1 rating for last weekend’s Cavs-Clippers game was even lower and down 70 percent year over year. NBC drew significantly more viewers showing Fast Five in that slot.
The NCAA Tournament factored into the ratings for that Cavs-Clippers game being so low. But, so did the Cavaliers benching LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, which was not lost on the NBA’s television partner ESPN/ABC.
Much of what will be the prime audience demographic in coming decades is not watching TV at all. NBA teams benching the major stars in prime spots is only giving them less incentive to do so. Leagues won’t be able to take the audience for granted in the future. Even if the NBA has done better engaging the youth, the median viewer is still in his/her late 30s.
There are some dramatic measures the NBA can take to inject life into the regular season. Reducing the number of games would ensure healthy star players are playing. Reducing the playoff to eight teams would give fans an incentive to watch the bulk of the games they are selling. Such steps may become necessary someday.
Ironically, it’s the certainty from the league’s $2.66 billion per year deal with ESPN and Turner that will stave off any discussion to help the networks out, beyond perhaps an unofficial directive to stop resting players in big TV games.