Why Does the NBA Execute a Broadcast Strategy that Harms the League?

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.

Where are all the fans?

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.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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14 Responses to Why Does the NBA Execute a Broadcast Strategy that Harms the League?

  1. Dan says:

    I’ve heard the Laker complaints all year about them being on TV too much. People never mention that playing on the west coast has a ton to do with it. Almost all nat. TV games tip at 8pm EST and 1030pm EST. Also, there’s only 5 teams on the west coast, meaning you have a very small pool of teams to chose for those late tip offs.

    • Kevin Draper says:

      Not buying it. The (47 and 34) Suns that got no games could’ve soaked up half of those games. The Kings could’ve been thrown a couple bones. Wildly entertaining Clippers, Warriors or Trail Blazers could have gotten more.

      The point isn’t that the Lakers should have no games. They’re a marquee team in a marquee city, and maybe would’ve had the league’s most popular player for the second half of the season. The point is they shouldn’t have 25 national games at the expense of the Suns’ 0. Give the Lakers 15, give the Suns 5 and spread the other 5 out among the other west coast teams. Problem solved.

      • Dan says:

        But wait….The Suns were predicted to be the 2nd worst team in the league and win 19 games this year, why would they have been put on Nat. TV? The schedule is Made 2 months before the season starts, and very few are games that can be flexed. You can’t flex TNT games because they have exclusive rights on those nights, you can’t flex ABC games because the tip times are different. If the team is good enough NBATV will put them on.

        • Kevin Draper says:

          Did you not read the article? The entire point of the article is that the NBA should be promoting ALL teams with national television games, regardless of whether they are popular or not, good or not. Yes, they will (and should) give more games to more popular and better teams, but the distribution should be much more even. The Suns should’ve gotten national TV games even if everybody thought they were going to be terrible.

          • Dan says:

            So you’re saying the Sixers, Bucks, Magic should all get ESPN and TNT games next year? Why? If you’re making an argument for the Pellies I understand. But showing everyone just because makes no sense to me.

          • Adithya Pugazhendhi says:

            The author also mentioned the potential for NBA nights where you have large clusters of games. With that setup it also becomes a little easier to flex games so while the bad teams still get games any truly unappetizing options can be easily switched up with other teams.

            To the author: Do you feel like the NBA should also explore spreading their game across more networks (similar to how the NFL has games going on at the same time on CBS and FOX)?

      • Dan says:

        You’re acting as if the TV people can just start randomly changing their schedule when a team becomes surprisingly good. Doesn’t work that way. That’s what NBATV is for.

        • Kevin Draper says:

          I appreciate you taking the time to comment, but I’m going to stop responding. You are asking me questions that are answered by the very article you’re commenting on. If you disagree with my conclusions or think they’re wrong fair enough, but you have to read the piece and understand what they are first.

  2. Glen says:

    I don’t think you can just correlate quality basketball with high TV ratings - like it or not, many people are into a team (a form of entertainment, usually packaged with other forms of entertainment, ie hanging out with friends) simply for geographical reasons. The league is certainly more popular with the bigger market are high quality, but this is not a reflection of quality it’s just numbers.

    It’s tough to compare to the NFL because of supply and demand of number of games. Sunday is football day, and you’re very hard pressed to not be able to watch your team if you want to. With NBA, I have to make more choices between watching a game and the regular goings-on in my life - especially living on the west coast (as the other commenter mentioned)

    FWIW, from a grassroots level, my gut feeling is that officiating is one of the biggest reasons why the NBA can’t compete with the like of NFL. I’ve often heard people comment that they just don’t get the NBA and the act of committing a foul…and this is before such people learn that the name on the back of the jersey plays a major part in fouls that are and are not called. No other major sport (unless you include pro wrestling) officiates based on the specific player involved.

    I’m a big basketball fan, but even this element limits the NBA’s popularity with me.

  3. Jonah says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Kevin. When ESPN/TNT/ABC concentrate so heavily on those half-dozen teams, they ignore so many of the highly watchable teams, not to mention so many of the great stories that they could be highlighting. ESPN the Magazine’s NBA Preview issue was 95% LeBron, 5% rest of the NBA. It’s so short-sighted to sell only the superhero angle to the public. Superheroes/Villains. As if hoops fans can’t take in anything more nuanced.

  4. Andrew says:

    I don’t understand why the NBA doesn’t try to go against the NFL in ratings. NBA is the most tweeted about major sport but during the tourney, NBA just took a vacation from Nationally televised games. I was the NBA I would whore myself out. ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, FOX, ABC,NBC, and NBCSN. College sports seem to have the best business in regards to tv. BTW, look how long it took for the Thunder to get on TV. Great piece.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Love the article. I’ve been saying this stuff for years, granted my office is not a very good medium for getting my message out. I was excited for the retirement of David Stern because I thought the NBA would go in a new direction that would promote the game in the States rather that continue with the status quo. I’m not so optimistic anymore after hearing what Adam Silvers priorities are through various interviews. Age restriction? Really? How about changing the post season seeding to a best of 16?(no one wants to watch the hawks vs pacers) How about putting more marquee games on CBS, NBC and ABC to increase exposure? How about allowing more flexibility when it comes to interchanging teams on national TV depending on injuries and win-loss record? How about reducing the number of games so as to increase the significance of March and early April games? There is so much Silver could do but instead his primary focus is adding another year to the eligibly rules. Sigh

  6. DD says:

    Terrific post. I walked away from it curious how long the NBA has followed this strategy—if it was birthed by strong ratings in the ’90s, with the insatiable hunger for Jordan’s Bulls and a few other star teams, maybe?

    (If so, it’s another strike against having a commissioner in seat for so many years—unwilling, or unable, to move away from the tactics that brought him.)

    • Kevin Draper says:

      It is a very good question that requires a lot more research than I have done.

      I know in the mid- to late-1990s the NBA required that each team be given at least one national TV game. That went away (I do not know why) when the NBA signed a television rights deal in 2001. That was a six year deal that was extended for eight more in 2007—the current deal we are on that is expiring soon.

      It’s also really hard to tell without having access to the details of the contracts themselves that spells out the rights responsibilities for each party in the negotiations. For instance, currently the NBA certainly consults with ABC/ESPN and TNT on the schedule, but it is unclear how much power the networks have. Can they demand certain match-ups? Do they have the right to veto some? Can the networks force the NBA to schedule 25 Lakers games on national TV?

      There’s a lot unclear…which leaves room for more research and a follow-up post!

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