78-Game Regular Season Schedule, In-Season Tournament Won’t Solve NBA’s Problems


ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe recently reported that the NBA was “engaged in serious discussions with the National Basketball Players Association and broadcast partners on sweeping, dramatic changes to the league calendar.” Among the ideas being discussed is a 78-game regular season schedule (down from 82), an in-season tournament (that would include all 30 teams), a post-season play-in tournament (for seeds 7-10 in each conference) and a re-seeding of the four conference finalists (based on regular season records). The proposed changes - which will be voted on at the league's board of governor’s meeting in April - would go into effect for the 2021-2022 season.

Howie Long-Short: Trimming the regular season schedule down to 78 games seemingly does little to alleviate either of the NBA’s two biggest problems (load management and tepid early season ratings). Former Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies executive Andy Dolich agreed saying, “[the elimination of four games] is a pebble in a pond. You look at the size and the speed of the players and the cumulative amount of wear and tear on their bodies [and three less games - because everyone is going to play in at least one tournament game - isn’t enough of a reduction to make an impact]. I also don’t see [replacing regular season games with a secondary in-season competition] increasing interest in the sport. Fan interest is tied to the players. It doesn’t have anything to do with a tournament concept.

Those who support the idea of an in-season tournament will point the success of the UEFA Champions League, but European soccer really shouldn’t be used as a comp; the NBA regular season schedule has more than 2x the number of games than that of the English Premier League (so fans want more competition) and “there is a level of nationalism that does not exist within the [NBA team dynamic].” Dolich said that with +/- 25% of the players in the NBA being foreign-born, the league would be better off exploring an international tournament consisting of teams from “Serbia, Croatia, Australia, France, Canada, Spain, USA and the African continent. It would be more exciting, interesting and marketable.

Marketability is important because the league needs to at least break-even if it’s going to implement a new season format - neither the owners nor the players are looking to take a haircut - but Dolich doesn’t “believe an in-season tournament will generate the television and sponsorship revenues [necessary to off-set the arena revenues (think: concession, tickets, event sponsor activation) that would be lost” (never mind the accommodations that would have to be made for the league’s current broadcast partners). It reasons to believe that one of the reasons the league won’t consider cutting the schedule down further than 78 games is because it doesn’t think it can make it up the money elsewhere.

If an in-season tournament takes place it’s likely to occur post-Thanksgiving, but before Christmas – the heart of the NFL calendar. While the league could theoretically keep games to weeknights (remember, the NFL also plays on Saturdays in December), Dolich says the NBA should look to avoid the holiday season. “Generating momentum from a standing start at that time of the year is extremely difficult. It’s like the Bermuda triangle for many businesses because people are preoccupied with their families.” The problem is that if the league waits until January it runs into the NBA Playoffs, February has the ASG and the trade deadline (which could negatively impact teams the tournament) and March has the NCAA tournament. There simply is no great option available.

Fan Marino: As for the other ideas on the table, Dolich is intrigued by the concept of a play-in tournament. “I think it adds unpredictability to the postseason and that gives [the idea] upside. Look at the Warriors this year. The team is going to have a brutal record, but what if some of their injured players were able to come back at the end of the season [and still have a chance to make a run].

The former NBA exec wasn’t nearly as high on re-seeding the conference finalists. He said, “it’s moving pieces around on a chess board. 

Marc Stein recently wrote that the league is weighing the possibility of rewarding the in-season tournament champion with an extra draft pick. Dolich doesn't particularly like that idea, either. He doesn't believe it will be enough to motivate teams and it comes across "a bit gimmicky." 

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