Here in Washington D.C., the professional basketball team is heading back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their squad consists of youngsters brimming with potential and steely defensive veterans. It is led by a budding star who did this over All-Star Weekend. Yet despite having all of these things going for them, nobody is excited about them. There are a variety of seasons for this, but one of the biggest is the lack of attention given to them this year, with only one national TV game on the schedule that ESPN ended up flexing out of.
When you hear stories of the NBA’s past, one of the dominant themes that emerges is how much David Stern transformed the league. The NBA Finals used to be shown on tape delay! The league expanded by seven teams! While I don’t disagree with these—and other—successes, it is worth examining the league’s standing closer.
The NBA should be more popular than it is, challenging football for American sporting supremacy instead of rolling around in the mud with baseball. This assertion is obviously unproveable—you can’t prove a “should”—but I think it is accurate. The NBA has always had a ton going for it. It is the sport of cities, where the majority of Americans have lived for decades. It is exciting, featuring the most jawdropping feats of athleticism. You can sit two feet away from the players with no barrier. There aren’t any funny helmets or hats in front of the players’ faces.
Whenever I bring up that the NBA should be more popular and perhaps David Stern presided over flawed strategies, I’m surprised at the almost violent reaction I get, as if I’m questioning the core tenants of the sport or something. I’m not, I’m simply saying that I love basketball, it could be better, and the league could’ve (and can) do a lot more to make the sport more popular.
I’ve written about what I term the short-sighted free arena problem before, where the NBA aids and abets owners in moving to smaller markets in order to secure publicly-funded arenas. From Vancouver to Memphis, Charlotte to New Orleans, Seattle to Oklahoma City to preventing the Kings from moving from Sacramento to Seattle, this strategy prioritizes a short-term financial windfall over the (for the league) long-term gains of showcasing the sport to more fans. It benefits individual owners at the expense of the league.
Similarly, the league presides over a television strategy that benefits a select few markets rather than the league—and its future—as a whole.
The average team has twelve percent of their games televised nationally each year, but these games are actually distributed very unevenly. This season the Heat, Lakers and Knicks all appeared on ABC, ESPN or TNT 25 times, while the Bobcats, 76ers and Raptors didn’t appear once. The median team was featured on national TV just seven percent of the time, which is reflected in the leftward skew of the graph above: half the league had three or fewer national TV games.
This is just as shortsighted and detrimental to the league as a whole as its arena strategy. You probably noticed that two of the three most televised teams were terrible this year, while two of the three least televised made the playoffs. This resulted in a whole lot of shitty basketball—at one point in January the fifth-worst-team-in-basketball Lakers played three nationally televised games in seven nights—being showcased to the casual fan who tunes in for what are supposed to be the “big” games.
Clearly, this does make a certain amount of (financial) sense. I’d bet TNT’s March 25th match-up between the Lakers and Knicks outdrew its other game, the Thunder and Mavericks, even though the latter is clearly a more tantalizing match-up basketball-wise. The problem is this panders to already existing large fanbases at the expense of working to create new ones. It sends a message to fanbases not featured on national TV that they aren’t important to the league, that the NBA doesn’t care about sharing their team with the entire country, let alone the world. It conditions potential basketball fans to a reality where only a few teams in the league matter, and teaches them they shouldn’t bother paying attention to the rest.
It is telling that the league’s television strategy is markedly at odds with the NFL’s. There are big differences between how the sports can and should be presented—football has almost always been more popular, it mostly plays on weekends, it has an extremely popular feeder league—but it is still instructive to look at how it approaches TV.
The first, biggest difference is that the NFL guarantees each team at least one televised game per year. At least one night each season, whether than be on Sunday, Monday or Thursday Night Football, your team is the only one playing, the focus of the entire league. Furthermore, while the league still does play favorites with certain fanbases (looking at you, NFC East), the distribution of national games is much more even than the NBA’s.
This is because at its core the NFL promotes the league rather than individual teams. Since almost every game is played on the same day, the league promotes Sunday as a day to watch football, not as a day to only watch your favorite team. There is more parity in the NFL, meaning a team heavily promoted last season may suck this season, leading to a more even allocation of promotion. The league has enthusiastically embraced and incorporated fantasy football, a game that requires paying attention to every single team in the league, into everything that it does. There is only a 4% correlation between market size and amount of games on national TV in the NFL; in the NBA there is a 25% correlation.
I don’t mean to say that the NFL is perfect and that the NBA should copy everything it does wholesale. The NBA is different than the NFL in many ways, and its promotion strategies should understand and reflect those differences. But what the league needs is a commissioner willing to promote what is best for the league long-term, even if that means foregoing some short-term financial gain.
The league needs to realize that an ever increasing part of the total revenue pie is made up of the broadcast slice, and its strategies should reflect that accordingly. The league should stop helping owners move teams to minor league baseball cities and instead look to enter (or re-enter) major media markets. The league should put both a floor and a ceiling on how many times a team is allowed to be shown on national TV. The league should consider shortening the schedule to allow fans to watch more rested and less injured players play basketball, and perhaps consider clustering games on certain nights (probably Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday after football season) and promote them as NBA Nights. The league should look to eliminate the incentives that encourage general managers to put a sub-standard product on the floor and treat the final 25% of the season as a joke.
Basketball is a phenomenal sport, but at times it has been severely let down by its stewards. It is time for that to change.