You could be here, rather than Indianapolis, in March. | Photo by Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images
Over the past few years a once faint drumbeat has grown louder, and ever louder. The NBA season is too long. It should be shorter. With no NBA official saying a word, this has nonetheless become an article of faith among many in the NBA commentariat.
Maybe the Shorter Season is like saying “I should get more sleep.” or “I should eat more vegatables.” or “I’m going to drink that six gallons of water a day.” That is, something everyone says, but few actually mean.
But what if it isn’t?
I fancy this all began in some late February podcast with Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz, two NBA pundits I greatly respect. Both (habitually, constantly) reinforce one another on the issue of the Awful Terribly Long NBA Season. Both seem keen on longer vacations, with Mr. Lowe understandably pining, perhaps, for more time in Dubrovnik, or Korcula in the summertime.
I wonder if what they’re wanting is really a shorter season? These two men have ridden the ever-rising NBA whirlwind to the peak of their profession. Top NBA reporters are a Big Deal now, in a way they never were even ten years ago.
The league is no longer the sleepy affair it once was in the off-season. Summer league isn’t a time to hang out in Vegas, talk hoops and have fun, but an Event that must be Covered. I can understand homesickness for the things that were dear and charming about the old NBA. I do not believe a shorter season will bring those days back. Nor do I think it would reduce anyone’s workload, or bring Croatia any closer.
Some of this Shorter Season mindset might not come from the desire for the Old Days, which featured of course, the same number of games, but also an actual off-season. It arises, rather, from the zero-sum thinking that pervades perception of the game for many.
In short, this thinking runs like this: If your team isn’t competing for a title, why is it playing? What’s the point of anything except the playoffs (and that ties into the “load management” concept as well)? Why risk a single thing that might effect the playoffs for anything in the regular season?
This is a real problem. It is something that could, and should be addressed by the NBA. There are ways to do it. In the meantime, the point of the regular season is: This is the actual league. The NBA with all its teams participating in meaningful games, is the NBA. The regular season is the heart of the league for every team, not just a fortunate few. The playoffs are an ever reducing number of teams, battling to crown a champion.
The NBA regular season is, and should be considered, worthwhile on its own. It should be worth watching with no playoffs at all. As if it were the English Premiere League. That is, win the most games? You win the league. You are Champion. Now every game really does matter.
The Only Ringz branch of the Short Seasonists have reduced everything to titles. Doing this alienates 29 of 30 teams, and odds are your team is one of the 29, but never mind. If only “ringz” matter, why not just have a tournament from day one? Because once elimination occurs, and it might be quick, there’s no chance to watch your team anymore? Because it seems reductive, and crass, when you put the “ringz” case that baldly?
Which brings us to a second problem for the Short Seasonists, one that isn’t an aesthetic or ethical concern. Money. What pays for all the fabulousness of the NBA? The nine figure contracts? The $30 million plus annual salaries? The team private jet charters? The minimum salaries of well over $1 million for veterans? The regular season, that’s what.
Does it have to be the way it is now, though? Could the NBA become like the NFL, play fewer games, but charge more for them? Make every game a big deal?
Let’s take my hometown of Houston and see if the numbers work. Houston isn’t as massive a market as LA, or New York, but it’s no small market either. If a scheme doesn’t work for Houston, it definitely won’t work for Memphis.
The Houston Texans play in a stadium that holds 72,000. Despite their best efforts, they fill that stadium for 8 regular season home games, and two pre-season games that cost season ticket holders what the regular season games cost. Ten home games are guaranteed per season for any NFL team.
Toyota Center, home of the Rockets, holds 18,000, and they currently play 41 regular season games.
So let’s suppose the Rockets were able to charge what the NFL team does per ticket (unlikely) to effect a shorter schedule. Well, they still are operating in a building four times smaller than the Texans NRG Stadium in capacity. That won’t get you enough money for a much smaller schedule.
NRG is almost exactly 4 times bigger than Toyota Center in capacity. So to get the revenue numbers the same as an NFL game in NRG you could… schedule more games. So let’s see, 10 days a year, times four (due to the Toyota Center being one quarter the size) to come close to NFL seat revenue and we get…40 home games.
Which is pretty close to the the 41 home games the Rockets currently play in the regular season. Of course, that’s only half the schedule, your opponents want 40 home dates as well, so that’s 80 games. Which seems awfully close to 82.
To play an NFL-like weekly schedule you’d need to charge four times the (exorbitant) price of an NFL seat(!) for a 48 minute basketball game, or must play in much, much, larger venues. Neither of those options seem viable for basketball.
What about cutting 10% of the schedule? Eight games, roughly. Now the NBA and teams are making a case to their TV partners that they should pay the same revenue for 10% less product. 10% fewer advertising opportunities, for the same money. It’s not such a massive reduction that you aren’t still playing 74 games, though. Four fewer home games probably means a 10% ticket price increase as well. Now everyone, TV, fans in the stadium, are paying more, but it’s still 74 games.
Maybe you can make your TV partners, and your fans, eat that fuzzy lollipop, but would the Short Seasonists would accept that as a meaningful reduction in games? Eight games is about two weeks. Is two weeks off worth it, to anyone?
Of course the season could remain the same length, in terms of months and weeks, but have two weeks more breathing room between games. Would that reduce injury, or fatigue, or generate more excitement in late February? It might, but it might not. The revenue problem also remains unsolved.
There is, of course another solution. Cut 10%, 30%, 70%, whatever percent, of the schedule. All that’s needed is to convince the players to take the corresponding pay cut. They hate the schedule so much, their quality of life must be worth 10%-whatever% less income to them, right?
The NBA has already reduced pre-season. It has reduced the number of closely scheduled games. The extra days taken from the pre-season might make early season basketball quality arguably worse, but they’ve definitely made much of the regular season schedule better.
Yet after a real solution from the league to real schedule problems, the drumbeat continues for a Shorter Season. No one is saying how much shorter, just shorter. Perhaps those drumsticks should be laid aside until we figure out who will be paying, or taking a pay cut, for the wondrous shorter season?