For all of its cool, the NBA can’t seem to translate it into ratings success on TV. The league sits firmly at the juxtaposition of being the “trendy and popular” league—driven by narratives, agendas, and free agency rumors under the influence of social media more than the game itself—and being a novelty or a filler that’s only compelling to watch when the postseason arrives.
This has been the NBA’s predicament way before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended its season and the operations of all major sports. But when the NBA moves forward with rebooting the league at the end of July, they will use the Orlando bubble to experiment and introduce new concepts we feel it should seriously consider implementing for future seasons in order to attract new fans and infuse the competition with seasonal micro-tournaments to spice up the regular-season in ways other sports wouldn't dare. Here are a few suggestions.
Add a Play-in Tournament Before the Playoffs
The NBA is already bringing this concept to Orlando since the New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, and Sacramento Kings will be fighting to earn the 9th seed. To refresh your memory, the eight regular-season games each team will play will be used for playoff seeding purposes. If the final difference between the 8th and 9th seeds is less than four games, there will be a play-in for the right to take on the top seed in either conference in a traditional best-of-seven series.
Under the scope of the regular-season, the play-in could work as the league constructed it in the bubble. Let’s say that after a normal regular-season there is a two-to-three game difference between the Nos. 8 and 12 seeds in a conference, a single elimination play-in would definitely be feasible-and fun. The 8th seed would get a bye, while the 9th and 12th seeds play as do the 10th and 11th. The winners of 9th vs. 12th and 10th vs. 11th will face off with the winner of that showdown then facing the 8th seed for the last playoff spot.
Or, the NBA could roll with mini-tournament between seeds 7 through 10 where the winner of the 7 vs. 8 seed matchup automatically earns a playoff berth, while the loser of7 vs. 8 play the winner of 9 vs. 10 for the last spot. A play-in format for the bottom tier teams will give fans a reason not to fast forward to the playoffs and then to free agency and the draft. If there are high stakes and high drama around said stakes, the fans will come, sit their asses down, and watch.
Incorporate a 75-Game Regular-Season and Mid-Season Tournament
In November, there were reports of a plan to shorten the regular season, possibly to 75 games and add a mid-season tournament for all teams in time for the 2021-22 season. Since 70 games is the benchmark for team’s to secure local broadcast revenue, why not shorten the season to 75 games? A 75-game regular-season would nearly satisfy revenue concerns for owners while promoting more rest and offer fewer of the dreaded back-to backs for players. There would be less need for load management.
While a mid-season tournament sounds intriguing, it defeats the purpose of shortening the season. Finalists of the mid-season tournament would play more than 82 games. Granted, the purpose of the mid-season tourney would be to recoup revenue lost by shortening the season. However, a mid-season tournament followed by a play in at the end of the season would be unnecessary.
Shift the Calendar Permanently
The NBA season usually begins in mid-October and ends in June. The pandemic has forced the league to consider starting the 2020-21season in December. If the league reboot goes as planned and the next season begins in December, this could very well be a permanent change.
Maybe a change for the better.
The NBA season would start up just as the NFL regular-season wraps up. They will still have to contend with the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, but they are doing that anyway under the current calendar. A December start date would see the Association emerge and peak after the NFL winds down. It also will avoid overlapping with the MLB postseason and the World Series.
If the NBA moves their start date to December, they should do it on Christmas Day, traditionally its biggest day of the regular-season. There are at least four-to-five nationally televised games on the slate on Christmas anyway. No other sports play on Christmas so all the attention goes to the Association.
Institute Off-Season OTAs
During the NFL off-season, teams usually host Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and mini-camp before heading off to training camp. They are a crucial part of the off-season in which teams set the foundation for the upcoming season. Because of the pandemic, the eight teams not going to the bubble are planning OTAs of their own before next season ramps up. It makes sense because these teams are looking at a nine month layoff without any organized workouts. Having OTAs in the offseason will give teams a head start in developing their team for the upcoming season. What the league and teams could do is have their OTAs for one week out of the off-season, and players can resume their personal training afterwards.
Mic-Up the Players
Since there will be no fans in Orlando, the NBA threw around the idea of pumping in 2K video game crowd noise to simulate fans, among other options. The best option would be to mic up the players. Normally, a player and a coach are miced up on national broadcasts. Why not mic up at multiple players? On the playground, trash talk makes the game more exciting and the players themselves know this more than anyone. The fans that consume all things basketball know this as well. Imagine strapping a mic on players such as Draymond Green, Patrick Beverley, and Russell Westbrook to hear them talk trash freely and uncensored. Interest will increase, and so will the ratings. Easy win for everyone.