In five years as president of ESPN, John Skipper had countless conversations with NBA officials. On the lengthening of the playoffs. Learn about adding teams to the playoffs. Regarding re-seeding already in the second round. A discussion that Skipper never had substantially: radically change the NBA calendar.
As COVID-19, the coronavirus, spreads across the United States, the NBA is preparing for the possibility of playing a summer program for the first time in the history of the league. There is sensational property support to find a way to end the season, NBA officials told SI.com, even if it means restarting the season in late June, even if it pushes the finals back to September. Some estimates indicate that the NBA has lost up to $ 1 billion in a lost season, an astounding number of team owners who desperately want to knock it out.
A recovered NBA season would benefit owners and players, as well as the thousands of workers, vendors and in-arena venues that rely on it. It would also provide the league with valuable data on the feasibility of a summer program.
Earlier this month, Steve Koonin, CEO of Atlanta Hawks, who appeared on a panel at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference, offered a detailed proposal to radically change the NBA program. Koonin’s proposal, reported for the first time by ESPN, the start of the NBA season is expected to move from mid-October to mid-December, with the finals to be held in August and the free agency in September. The change, Koonin argued, would eliminate the first phase of the NBA season from competing with the NFL and college football, pushing its marquee schedule into the summer, where the sports calendar is significantly lighter.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel to improve ratings,” said Koonin. “Sometimes, moving away from the competition is a great way to increase ratings.”
Koonin’s proposal has supporters. Evan Wasch, NBA senior vice president for strategy and analysis, said the championship “would have no problem reconsidering the schedule.” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in an email to SI.com, indicated recent increases in television audience as a trend that could suggest that “the smart thing to do may be to play longer in the summer.”
Indeed, the biggest obstacle to a radical change in the program is the willingness of the league’s television partners to accept it. “The only reason we haven’t played games after June 12 in the past is because of our TV partners [see] HUT homes – homes that use television – drop significantly, “Cuban said in a recent interview.” Well, the television landscape has changed dramatically in the past three to four years. “Conventional thinking: the weather is getting better hotter, fewer people watch television, ratings plummet.
And they do it. But some TV executives see ratings go down reflecting the lack of effort often put into summer programming like timing of it. Broadcasting networks bring out the top rated shows with a script in the spring and bring them back in the fall. Sports offers are limited to daily baseball and semi-regular events such as the Olympics or the World Cup. But the audience on cable and premium networks tends to increase, with outlets offering similar shows Yellowstone (Paramount Network) e Big Little Lies (HBO), two scripting programs that saw substantial increases in views last summer.
“You can’t treat summer like wasteland,” said Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports. “Put the repetitions, nobody will watch it. Do something original and good, it’s like “If you build it, they will come”. “
Espinoza has experience with summer programming. Boxing is a sport tentpole at Showtime. For years, boxing programmers have avoided organizing major events in the summer, embracing conventional wisdom. In 2017, Floyd Mayweather signed up to face Conor McGregor on August 26th. The fight generated 4.3 million pay per view purchases, the second highest total in boxing history.
“It was really clear that once we got there on August 1, there was nothing to talk about in the sports world other than that fight,” Espinoza told SI.com. “Much of what we do is try not to disadvantage ourselves by going against the NBA, NFL, to get those media earned.” In recent years, the summer months have become heavily populated by boxing. Espinoza said, “We consider those months to be quite fertile ground.”
A summer program could offer data that could lead the NBA to come to a similar conclusion. The proof of the success of summer basketball is already there: Zion Williamson’s summer debut last July scored 1.2 on ESPN, a single-game summer championship record. The ratings of the summer championships on ESPN have increased by 35% (an average of 601,000 spectators) since 2018. In mid-summer, teams largely populated by marginal prospects also attract an audience.
During ESPN, Skipper, former Turner Sports president David Levy and NBA commissioner Adam Silver often discussed making the NBA a championship all year round. Skipper sees the evolution of viewing habits, which includes the growing number of people watching sports on computers and phones, as further proof that a summer season could be successful. “I think summer basketball can work,” Skipper said in a telephone interview. “In terms of TV viewers, people will watch the finals. I don’t think the fact that it’s in the summer will change it. “
Espinoza agrees. The weather, Espinoza says, may even work in favor of the NBA. A decrease in spectators in the Northern markets could be mitigated by an increase in spectators in states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, regions that can become oppressively hot in the summer months. “And, once again, there’s not much you’re competing with,” said Espinoza. “I don’t see why the NBA isn’t doing well in the summer.”
Radical changes will not happen quickly. If the NBA season can be restarted in June, this could force the start of the 2020-21 season to be pushed deeper into the fall. In the long run, however, players should board. Numerous players told SI.com that they would be open to a summer program, provided that this would cause an increase in revenue. “Money talk,” wrote a veteran player. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2024. The NBA rights agreements expire in 2025, perhaps creating a window for the league to explore change.
In February, during the All-Star weekend, Silver acknowledged that the NBA has a rating problem. National and local numbers have declined. Silver attributed part of the problem to the young NBA fan base who disconnected from pay TV, some to the catastrophic injuries that hit many of the game’s biggest stars. The league has already explored significant changes in juice ratings, from a seasonal tournament at a play-in for the post season. A revision of the program could be the next step.
“Let football have its time,” said Koonin. “Let’s give our time and go later.”