On June 19, 2021 in Brooklyn, New York.
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National Basketball Association executive Byron Spruell has some work to do ahead of the league’s next media rights deal. The NBA wants to elevate rights, and developing new concepts that attract viewers could help.
The league’s pressure on a mid-season tournament is an option, but it needs to gain momentum across its ownership group. The players’ union will have a say, and the other constituencies (team bosses, sponsors) will also get involved. And then there are basketball historians and traditionalists who are going to make a big fuss.
Here NBA commissioner Adam Silver entrusts Spruell to create the blueprint for the mid-season tournament. But early signs suggest he needs more incentives to make it work.
What does the viewer get out of it?
The NBA’s concept for a mid-season tournament is derived from observations made in international football leagues. European basketball clubs also run tournaments, and an NBA team manager noted the massive fan support these games are receiving.
The concept would include group games – essentially improved versions of regular season competitions – and teams that perform well would be invited to the mid-season tournament. The NBA is testing the idea for its 25th anniversary in the WNBA and is calling it the “Commissioner’s Cup In-Season Competition”.
WNBA players share a prize pool of $ 500,000. The winning team will receive $ 30,000 per player, the runner-up will receive $ 10,000 per player, and the Commissioner’s Cup title game MVP will take home $ 5,000. Google is a main sponsor of the WNBA tournament. And Amazon is the media partner that will stream the games on its Prime video service.
The NBA wanted the concept on their 75th anniversary, but the pandemic changed things. So this year the league executives will study the fanfare of the WNBA format.
“This is a visionary idea,” said long-time media director John Kosner about the tournament. “I think we’ll see more of that.”
The NBA will use money as a primary incentive for team members and players. League officials hope this reward-based business model will pull players into competing against each other. And additional compensation to player charities, especially social justice organizations, could help get their approval.
The thing is, what’s in it for viewers? What will make people watch a mid-season tournament, especially when the National Football League is on? And how would the NBA retain fans?
NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum holds up the Detroit Pistons card after it fell during the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery on June 22, 2021 at the NBA Entertainment Studios in Secaucus, NJ.
Steve Freeman | National Basketball Federation | Getty Images
Add a draft selection
Kosner, who headed digital media at ESPN until 2017, noted that consumers have more options outside of sport. Covid-19 has disrupted sports consumption and viewers have identified other entertainment options. For leagues outside of the NFL, innovation around their product is a necessity. Even if it means disrupting tradition.
“You have to convince people that there is a reason to watch,” said Kosner. “You have to do your product the best you can because you are no longer competing with any other sport – it’s everything else people can see and do.”
In a fall-winter sports cycle, the NBA’s 82-game season is a bit stale. It has moments like the Christmas games and Thursday evenings are entertaining with the production of Turner Sports. But resting the players is still an issue and that affects national competitions.
His top superstar LeBron James, who moved west, didn’t help either.
That season, the league’s audience averaged 1.3 million viewers during its national games on ESPN, ABC and TNT. Covd-19 influenced that, but numbers before the pandemic: For the 2018/19 season, the NBA saw an average of 1.79 million viewers. And the year before James left the East (2017-18) the average was 1.89 million.
Audience numbers are a little tricky to understand, and the NBA’s product is strong for the 2020-21 postseason, including solid box office viewership with James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
But to expand engagement and increase interest in a mid-season tournament, some league circles came up with the idea of adding a draft pick to the stakes.
The NBA could place the pick between 14th and 15th, protect the lottery teams and add an edge to the teams that win the tournament. The league may refer to it as a “Commissioner’s Cup Pick” or other title sponsor to pay for the naming rights.
The selection rewards the team that remains competitive in the early stages of the regular season. It creates a benefit for team owners that executives can leverage in potential trading scenarios. And finally, the engagement creates as the social media channels are filled with NBA fans looking for ways to improve teams through trades and draft picks.
Byron Spruell, President of League Operations, speaks at the 2017 NBA Finals Cares Legacy Project in Cleveland, Ohio.
David Dow | National Basketball Federation | Getty Images
The NBA tossed the idea around, but so far it hasn’t had enough support. There are concerns about possible backlash and strengthening good teams with star players. If teams like the Lakers and the loaded Brooklyn Nets were expecting so many, they’d win every tournament. But in a knockout-style match similar to the NCAA March Madness games, even the power teams could have a bad night.
Another team leader favored adding the draft pick. The person called the concept the NBA Commissioner’s Cup tournament, where each competition is a game 7.
A look at the audience for the last postseason Games 7: The Nets vs. Milwaukee’s Bucks averaged 6.9 million viewers. And the underdog Atlanta Hawks knocked out the power team – the Philadelphia 76ers. Game 7, which attracted 6.2 million viewers. Post-season playoffs are fun and attract sports fans.
The elimination style could also help in the regular season, said Kosner. He agreed to the inclusion of the draft pick, adding that the tournament “creates another event that [sports] Betting companies would be happy. I think it’s a good idea and I hope they do. “
“It’s more quality programming,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. “I can’t imagine the audience disagreeing or not watching. The idea of the mid-season tournament has an appeal to create more exciting and competitive games that otherwise might not exist during the regular season.”
NBA betting on patience
However, Pilson, now a professor in Columbia University’s sports management program, warned of player injuries.
Tournament games could add intensity, forcing players to struggle through gnawing injuries that could otherwise leave them exposed. After all, the NBA postseason is the most important part of the year. If key players injure themselves during a high pressure tournament game, championships could be at risk.
But with the right incentives, the league believes that even the best players would be willing to help their teammates make more money.
Compensation drafts could return to the negotiating table while the NBA continues to work on the draft. Here, too, the aim is to examine how the concept works with other objects, including elements of the Basketball Africa League.
Configuring home and away games will also be challenging, and determining which part of the calendar will install the tournament is also crucial. There is talk of inviting European clubs. And placing knock games in one place – most likely in Las Vegas. Should Spruell and Silver develop the logistics of the tournament and the owners and players agree, the league officials bet that patience will grow on the fans.
The NBA has renewed interest in the all-star game. The play-in race is a fun concept. Now it’s up to explore with its 82 game campaign to make that even more exciting.
“If you start a mid-season tournament with something at stake, you’ll get people to watch,” said Kosner.