The NBA’s $500 million hope for the holidays
By Marc Stein
The most frequently posed query in NBA circles over the past several weeks — When do you think next season will start? — had also been one of the hardest to answer.
Even Commissioner Adam Silver, at a news conference before Game 1 of the finals, cautioned reporters that it was too soon for him to provide details in response “to most of your questions” about the 2020-21 season.
That all changed last Friday after a board of governors meeting. In yet another reminder of 2020’s seemingly boundless unpredictability, numerous team owners supported the league’s new plan to push for a Dec. 22 start date — just 10 weeks removed from the Los Angeles Lakers’ six-game championship triumph over the Miami Heat.
The league office cannot unilaterally impose its preferred timetable upon NBA players, but negotiations have been underway ahead of today’s deadline to modify the current labor agreement. Although that deadline has been moved back three times, expectations are that the sides will ultimately strike a deal this time on the terms for next season, such as setting the salary cap and luxury tax figures and an overhauled calendar with Dec. 22 as opening night.
These are the three main reasons a December start, after the longest NBA season, suddenly became the target:
— This is what the league’s television partners want.
Throughout the NBA’s three-month stay at Walt Disney World, all signs pointed to the 2020-21 season beginning in 2021. League insiders frequently cited mid-January as the earliest possible start date, and several said they would not be surprised to see the wait extended until February or March. Playing the long game, it was often suggested, would enhance the chances of fan attendance for at least a portion of the regular season.
Of course, over the two-plus weeks since the season ended, daunting projections about the spread of the coronavirus this winter have led to rising pessimism about the league’s ability to admit even small crowds anytime soon. Multiple teams thus began to whisper last week that momentum was building to start the new season around Dec. 25 to preserve the ability to broadcast five games on Christmas Day.
Disney, which owns ESPN and has been described by Silver as the league’s biggest partner, badly wants to continue that Christmas tradition and have five games to televise on either ABC or ESPN. Turner, the NBA’s other primary broadcast partner, would get its traditional opening night doubleheader on a Tuesday if the union agrees to the Dec. 22 proposal. The league, for its part, has informed the union that it projects a difference of $500 million in revenue if it can start the season in December rather than mid-January.
All of those factors resonate pretty loudly after the season that the NBA just endured.
The league fell an estimated $1.5 billion short of its projected revenue for 2019-20 after a costly breakdown in its relationship with China, the cancellation of 171 regular-season games in response to the virus outbreak and the absence of playoff ticket income. The shortfall would have been an estimated $3 billion if the league didn’t engineer a bubble environment near Orlando, Fla., to find a way to finish its suspended season — at a cost of roughly $180 million.
It is smart business for any league, when possible, to make its broadcast partners happy. Just as establishing the bubble inside Disney World’s gates, rather than in Las Vegas or any other proposed locale, presumably only strengthened the NBA’s bond with Disney, moving up the timetable for next season for the networks’ benefit is another potentially grand gesture.
The league’s current TV contract with Disney and Turner runs through the 2024-25 season, but it’s not too early to start thinking about the next one — especially when there is so much negative noise about the NBA’s TV ratings.
— The league wants to give fans (and players) their summers back.
Starting the new season before Christmas would probably enable NBA players to participate in the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. And several of the league’s top international players, such as Italy’s Danilo Gallinari, Marco Belinelli and Nicolo Melli and France’s Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert, have said in recent weeks how important it is to them.
The league wants to make that happen, if possible, which would also prevent high-profile NBA playoff games from clashing with the Summer Games. But the bigger motivation for preventing the playoffs from straying too far into July is to avoid playing throughout the summer for a second successive season, while also restoring free agency as the centerpiece of the NBA’s summer calendar.
League officials have publicly downplayed concerns about the recent ratings decline, pointing to the NBA’s mammoth social media following as a source of optimism about its broader appeal. Vocal critics — with little to no evidence — increasingly attribute the plunge to a leaguewide embrace of social justice causes, but the dip has had an effect even if there is no clear-cut explanation. Long-held fears among NBA traditionalists that the viewing audience will inevitably shrink after July appear to have been validated.
The bubble was a test run for those who have lobbied the league to move to a season that starts around Christmas and continues through the summer months to compete more with Major League Baseball rather than the NFL. Although numerous sports are contending with worrisome TV ratings, it was a setback for NBA change-seekers that Bubble Ball did not come close to approaching the ratings bonanza some were expecting.
Another inescapable truth: Players want their summers back, too. After the intense demands of the bubble, with the Lakers and the Heat forced to spend nearly 100 days on an isolated campus, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers was most likely speaking for many of his peers when he said as much Sunday on Twitter.
— Making this move sets up the NBA for something resembling normalcy in 2021-22.
The sudden shift to a December start, even if it is accepted by the players, would create chaos across the league.
Twenty-two teams have been off since early September, but the Lakers and Miami were still playing less than three weeks ago and would face an unenviable turnaround. Rookies selected in the Nov. 18 NBA draft would find themselves in practice settings just days later, without the benefit of summer league to help with the transition. A compressed free agency is likely to begin before Thanksgiving and run concurrently alongside expedited training camps. And seven teams have new coaches who will be rushing to implement their systems — while Houston and Oklahoma City still have vacancies to fill.
It’s a given that the 2020-21 season can’t possibly proceed as smoothly as bubble life did. Even if the arenas are essentially empty, teams are determined to play in their home markets. Players, coaches and team staffers living at home and traveling would invite the same coronavirus-related risks and problems that have plagued the NFL this season.
But making sure the 2020-21 season ends in July at the latest would increase the NBA’s readiness for a traditional October-through-June run in 2021-22, which appears to be its next real opportunity to regain access to the crowds, sponsors and ancillary arena income that, as Silver said in May, typically accounts for 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue.