How the NBA Can Compete With the NFL
Back in 2014, on a random NBA February night in Sacramento, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver offered his vision for the league during a contest between the Kings and Toronto Raptors. “I think this game should be a rival to football.” Silver said. Needless to say this proclamation was met with some skepticism, because let’s face it, as fun as the NBA has been over the past few seasons with LeBron’s compelling triumphant return to Cleveland and the Golden State Warriors forcing us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about offense, professional football is still king in America, projected to do over $13 billion in revenue this season alone. To paraphrase a line from the movie Concussion, Commissioner Silver is going up against a corporation that owns a day of the week, a day that used to belong to the church.
If Commissioner Silver has any hope of competing against the behemoth that is the NFL, he must embrace bold ideas that fly in the face of tradition. He must prove to the average sports consumer that the NBA is innovative and progressive. In short, he must pull the trigger on the boldest proposal of his brief tenure– realignment.
For years, NBA circles have clamored for a league wide realignment. The most common motive has been to address the issue of competitive balance, specifically the fact that since the end of the 90s era Chicago Bulls’ dynasty, the Western Conference has been overwhelming more competitive and generally better at basketball than its Eastern Conference counterparts.
Despite this evidence, the traditionalists argue that any substantive changes will have adverse effects on the game. Admittedly, some of these complaints are just the old heads arguing for the new era NBA to get off their proverbial lawns, but there are some merits to their dissent. But there is a way to implement realignment in a manner that improves the game without bringing about the end of society as we know it. Realignment is by no means a perfect solution and by no means fixes all the issues in the game today. But if the people who get paid to grow the game can tweak these ideas then we may be on the verge of an NBA revolution.
First, the details. The most logical realignment would be one based primarily on geography. The Northwest Division would be dismantled and the Southwest and Southeast Divisions would have some movement as well until we are left with the following:
(Ed. Note: These division names are working titles; League officials and marketing types who are paid far more than me can sort out the names.)
A quick glance at the new divisions reveals that the NBA would be down a division, so some corresponding changes will need to be made to accommodate realignment. The biggest (and most controversial) changes include the following:
80 Game Season (20 divisional games and 15 games against the four other divisions in the league)
Elimination of Conferences
Top 16 teams make the play-offs
Let’s deal with the 80 game season first. Dissenting voices have grown louder over time to reduce the NBA schedule from 82 games to any array of magical numbers, anywhere between 40 to 60 games representing the sweet spot. However, I would argue that the issue is not the number, but rather the quality of games that matters. By way of example, consider a tale of two lockouts.
Despite a strike shortened season in 2012, NBA interest was high because the sporting world wanted to see if the super team comprised of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh – the “Heatles”- could find redemption after the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks en route to their inevitable NBA dynasty. Loved or hated, the Heat were must-see television. Fans were treated to the proverbial cherry on the sundae that season as the Finals pitted the Heat against an up and coming Oklahoma City Thunder squad that was the anti-Heat; a team every bit as talented but built “the right way” through savvy front office moves and draft picks rather than collusion amongst superstars. The result was a banner year for the NBA.
Contrast that with the 1998 lockout where a post-Jordan NBA was occupied by aging superstars from the previous generation and a crop of talented, albeit young, generation of players not yet ready to assume the mantle of face of the league. The result was a forgettable season and a woeful Finals that featured the 8th seeded New York Knicks versus a young Tim Duncan and perhaps the weakest team of Spurs dynasty. No amount of games (or lack thereof) would have saved that 1998 season.
Which brings us back to the 80 game season. NBA owners are never going to forfeit a quarter of the season no matter how many think pieces are written about the subject. In a world of escalating payrolls offset by massive television contracts, there is no sane argument to support turning down profits. But they may be willing to give back 2% of the season in exchange for better games which would lead to increased fan interest which in turn would lead to an increase in the thing owners love the most: revenue.
The second point, no conferences and as a corollary the top 16 records qualify for the play-offs , is a more objective opportunity for the best teams to make the play-offs, and the undeserving ones to stay home. This latter point has gained some momentum in recent years due to the apparent competitive imbalance between the conferences. In the last decade, NBA fans have seen 50 win teams in the Western Conference miss the play-offs, while sub .500 teams host play-off series in the Eastern Conference.
The elimination of conferences in connection with the proposed realignment does away with that problem. Rather than eight representatives from each conference, the top 16 teams would qualify for the play-offs. The teams would be seeded similar to an NCAA basketball regional, culminating in the Finals. The obvious rebuttal to such a format is the lack of representation from each former conference, i.e. too many (former) Western Conference teams and not enough (former) Eastern Conference teams and vice versa.
Two points to that logic. First, a review of the 2016 regular season standings shows that the same teams that qualified for the play-offs in 2016 under the current format would have done so under realignment. The only difference would be seeding and first round match-ups, which would have arguably been more entertaining under the new format. Secondly, traditionalists may argue that the Finals needs to be represented by teams from each coast – an Eastern opponent facing off against a Western foe. I say the NBA should reject that antiquated notion and give the fans what they want which is the best match-ups possible throughout the play-offs.
One obvious benefit of geographical realignment is that it is more travel friendly. Rather than trek across the country for divisional match-ups, teams are now a little more than an hour plane ride from their next destination. In fact, if you compare the farthest points in each division, represented by the cities with the most mileage between them, then the flight is still only approximately two hours flying commercial, which makes it about 45 minutes on a team jet (I made that last part up; I’ve never been on a jet so I cannot assert how much faster they are than Southwest Airlines. Regardless, it’s still pretty fast). The result is NBA teams spending less time on the tarmac.
Let’s use the Portland Trailblazers as our test case. Over the last two seasons, the Trailblazers have literally been the NBA’s version of the road warriors, scheduled to rack up over 56,000 frequent flyer miles for the upcoming 2016-2017 campaign, with approximately 22,5000 of those miles accounting for division games. Under the new realignment, the Blazers would travel approximately 5,000 less miles for division games, and that’s with the addition of four more divisional match-ups.
One note here on travel. The referenced numbers for the division travel miles are based on an Idiot’s Guide to Math approach with me being the idiot in question. In other words, these divisional numbers are based on travel from Portland to the other divisional destinations. They do not factor in multiple city itineraries, i.e. a back to back where the Trailblazers play the Utah Jazz on a Thursday and fly out of Salt Lake City that night for a game against the Denver Nuggets on Friday. But even when you factor in that aspect of NBA travel, the numbers still favor realignment. For instance, if rather than a back to back in Salt Lake and Denver, the Trailblazers had games against the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, that schedule shaves an additional 1,000 or so miles off travel; a back to back with the Los Angeles teams? An additional 4,000 miles!
The result is fewer road weary teams dragging into NBA cities, less DNPs and better basketball for fans of the game. All these potential improvements maximize on one of the NBA’s advantages over the NFL --- its stars. Healthier rested marquee match-ups improve the product and will only increase fan interest.
Speaking of the fans, realignment presents an opportunity for fans to attend more games and thereby improve the attendance numbers across the league, which is an aspect of the game that the NBA is always looking to improve and for good reason. Unlike football, which has arguably become a better sport to watch away from the stadium, the full NBA experience is best enjoyed in person. From music to dancers to mascots with t-shirt cannons, a night at an NBA game is unrivaled in terms of entertainment and fan interaction. The problem of course is the overhead. Ticket prices have escalated over time and a night at an NBA game is one of the more expensive outings for most families. Enter realignment.
Reconfiguring the league so that teams are now in more geographically agreeable divisions allows for families to eliminate some of the costs associated with attending a game. Let’s go back to the Blazers, or rather a Blazers’ fan. Rather than plan travel to Minnesota, Denver or Oklahoma City, fans can now schedule flights to northern California for math-ups against the Sacramento Kings or Golden State Warriors. Flights from Oregon to Northern California are generally cheaper, shorter and run more frequently than trips to the Midwest. Fans of teams in the other proposed realigned divisions potentially have an even better deal as a number of adjacent NBA cities can be reached via car or public transportation. So, rather than blow the annual NBA budget on flights for a family of four for nosebleed seats, families can gas up the Honda Odyssey and spend some of the travel cash on better tickets --- after all, the Andersons (and their player hating neighbor) got tickets. Realignment helps ensure that other families across the country can too.
Admittedly, this does not “solve” the NBA game price tag problem. No amount of realignment is going to bring down escalating ticket prices and a night at a Major League ball park will still likely come in way cheaper than an NBA game. But when you are a family and you have to multiply every expense times 4 (or more), then every penny counts. If the NBA can bring games closer to viewing public, then more fans may be willing to attend.
There are other potential unintended benefits from realignment as well. Players may elect to sign with traditionally underperforming squads armed with the assurance that they no longer have to run the gauntlet to make the play-offs. Places like New Orleans or Phoenix may become more attractive free agency destinations now that each city’s respective postseason fate will not rely primarily on how it performs in a stacked Western Conference. Conversely, free agents cannot “hide out” in the Eastern Conference in the hopes of winning 43 games and avoiding the juggernauts out west until the Finals. This scenario has the potential to distribute talent throughout the league and increase parody, two topics the NBA has been desperately trying to address in recent years.
In the end, there is no guarantee that realignment will help Commissioner Silver realize his vision of competing with the NFL. Football is a monster that shows no signs of slowing down. But as mentioned, the NBA has something the NFL secretly craves – star power. And if the league can maximize its star power with an idea as radical as realignment, it just might start gaining ground.