David Stern and Yao Ming addressed reporters in China this week. (Randy Belice/Getty Images)
Will there come a day when the NBA schedules the tip-offs of its games to best fit the schedules of fans who are watching from halfway across the globe?
It sounds crazy at first blush, but commissioner David Stern said Tuesday that his league might investigate the idea of altering the start times of some games in order to accommodate its worldwide fan base.
Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and Rockets center Yao Ming were in Beijing, China, to announce the founding of the "NBA Yao School," an after-school program that will teach basketball skills, when a reporter asked whether the NBA would schedule regular season games in China in the future. This year, the NBA is playing preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai, while the international regular season games are set for Mexico City and London.
Although Silver said that travel time issues made it difficult to schedule regular season games in China, Stern floated a possible compromise: if the games can't be brought to China, they could at least be played at a more China-friendly hour.
"Interestingly, there's an intermediate step that Yao raised earlier with me, and that is the question of whether the NBA would consider modifying some of the start times of its games so that they would be more accessible to international audiences at a more convenient time for them to watch," Stern said. "And I think that the NBA is going to have to wrestle over the next decade as more and more of our viewing audience is outside the United States, is what's the best time for games to be played so that those fans can enjoy them live as opposed to having to get up in China and watch an NBA game at 7 in the morning. And I think that's a fun problem that we're going to be addressing because so much viewing is happening outside the United States now."
As it stands, a game that tips off at 7 p.m. in New York City begins at 7 a.m. in Beijing. Even west coast games that tip at 10 p.m. ET start at 10 a.m. in China, which isn't exactly prime time for vegging out on the couch with a cold one to take in some hoops. The league's holiday slates aren't that much more convenient. The start times for this year's quintuple-header on Christmas will run from 12 p.m. ET to 10:30 p.m. ET. That's midnight to 10:30 a.m. in Beijing. There's no realistic way for Chinese fans -- especially younger ones -- to catch more than a few of those games, and it's understandable why Stern and Silver might see this as a tremendous lost opportunity.
Coming up with a possible solution produces a slew of logistical concerns. Is it reasonable to expect NBA players to perform at 7 a.m. ET so that Chinese audience can enjoy some after-dinner televised fare? (Not at all. Even the games that tip at noon are usually slop fests.) How (in)convenient and/or (un)fair will it be to schedule a game at a China-friendly hour when a team's weekly slate might also include back-to-backs or three games in four nights? How realistic is it to expect season ticket holders to show up for games at odd hours on weeknights or, even worse, during work hours on weekdays? How well would the domestic media be able to adjust to a super early -- or super late -- start time and still serve its consumers?
Those issues acknowledged, the NBA is already years into its relationship with China. Stern and Silver begin seemingly every press conference with a recitation of how many countries televise NBA games and how many fans are following the sport globally. In addition to the preseason games in China, the academies in China that the league has funded, and the fact that superstars like Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose visit China during the offseason on promotional tours with their shoe companies, the NBA began incorporating the Chinese New Year into the league's schedule in 2012. Players wore special shooting shirts and holiday signage went up in the arenas. Meanwhile, the Chinese New Year games drew tens of millions of viewers, and Chinese users are responsible for billions of pageviews to the league's website. Those are massive numbers that are only growing and must be regarded seriously.
So what's the best way to make this work? Perhaps the NBA can take a page from the NCAA's book by staging a "Midnight Madness" style event for their local audience. Pick teams with a large contingent of die-hards, give everyone plenty of notice, hold it on a Friday or Saturday night, built out the event into a night-long party, and most of the domestic logistical annoyances dissolve. This is probably a once-a-season gimmick, but it would allow the games to tip between noon and 3 p.m. in China, which is way better than the early morning, especially if executed on a weekend. Such a game would get major worldwide ratings, especially if LeBron James, Bryant, Rose and Jeremy Lin -- four guys with top-selling jerseys in China -- or teams with established global followings, like the Lakers or Rockets, were involved.
Need more convincing? Imagine this best-case scenario: Bryant's Lakers host Lin's Rockets at the Staples Center for a 9 p.m. PT weekend tip off. Yes, that's a little late, but it's not all that different than the standard 7:30 p.m. PT tip, and it's not like the city of L.A. shuts down early. (The contingent of Lakers fans who usually arrive in the second quarter will be pleasantly surprised when they realize they are in their seats in time for warm-ups.) Now, schedule the contest on a weekend or, better yet, a Chinese national holiday. If you want to go all the way, have Yao provide color commentary from the sideline while both teams wear themed uniforms. How many people would watch that game? I don't know, but it would almost certainly set a global record, even if you lose a chunk of the east coast with the late start.
When you run through the possibilities, it quickly becomes clear that modifying start times is impractical, but not impossible. If executed properly and sparingly, the inconvenience factor, particularly when it comes to west coast games, isn't overwhelming. Even though the notion of playing games in the United States on Chinese time elicits a "This will never happen" first impression, perhaps the proper reaction should be, "Why hasn't this happened already?"