Why is there an 82-game schedule?

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 27, 2011.

Nobody can really tell you -- not the NBA scheduler, those who work in the NBA offices in New York, nor historians of the game.

Stuck on 82

NBA teams played 80 games each beginning in 1961-62. The league added a game in 1966-67, bringing the total to 81, then ultimately settled on 82 games for the 1967-68 season, when the San Diego Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics joined the league. Now a 12-team league, the NBA had each team play its conference rivals eight times and its inter-conference foes seven times. As the league continued to expand, the NBA maintained its 82-game schedule -- the only exception being the 1998-99 season, when a lockout produced an abbreviated (and compressed) 50-game schedule.

Too often, we allow tradition to govern the way we do things, and that holds true in the NBA. Rules and laws that were drawn up ages ago become entrenched and are rarely reexamined to see if they're working to their intended effect or whether we can improve upon them.

A couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, Richard Sandomir made the case for a shortened NBA schedule, noting that fewer games might save some wear and tear on NBA players. He consults with Jeff Van Gundy (who advocates for fewer games, but over the same duration) and Bill Simmons, who each support trimming a handful of games from the NBA schedule, while David Thorpe counters not so fast. At TrueHoop last week, J.A. Adande filed a concurring opinion in support of a 76-game schedule.

The wear-and-tear argument for fewer games certainly has merit, but the best reason to play fewer games is to create more compelling basketball, an NBA where there are more meaningful games and a greater number of fans who make appointments to watch.

March Madness and the NFL

Eighteen months ago, CBS and TNT agreed to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to broadcast the 67 games that compose March Madness over a span of 14 years. That's more than $771 million per year. Throw in the digital rights (including the ingenious boss button) and that figure crosses $11 billion.

The NBA currently receives approximately $930 million deal from its broadcast partners, ESPN/ABC and TNT, in a deal that will run through the 2015-16 season. The two networks combine to televise 142 regular-season games. TNT gets the All-Star Game and a slew of playoff games, while ABC airs The Finals and a handful of weekend postseason games.

In other words, the NCAA sells the 11 broadcast dates of March Madness for just a smidgen less per year than the NBA earns for the rights to eight months of NBA basketball. It's important to note that March Madness has a lot of things going for it. Seemingly every office in America hosts a bracket pool, and the sudden-death nature of the tournament produces a level of drama that's tough to replicate in any sport.

The NFL, whose broadcast contracts are staggering, provides another measuring stick. Pro football is the ultimate appointment-viewing sport in North America and rakes in an obscene amount of money. ESPN pays $1.8 billion per season for the rights to Monday Night Football, streaming rights, expanded highlight packages and the draft. That's nearly twice what the NBA earns from its partners for nearly its entire national package, and doesn't include the enormous amount of cash the league generates from Sunday broadcasts on Fox, CBS and NBC. The NBA, of course, generates significant revenue from local television rights, though few of those numbers are publicly available -- and few of those deals likely come close to the $150 million per season the Lakers will reportedly earn from their new agreement with Time Warner.

Finding the sweet spot

How can the NBA tap into some of magic of the NCAA tournament or the NFL?

Many skeptics insist that the NBA product just isn't as telegenic or engaging as March Madness or the NFL. NBA enthusiasts would argue that's not the case -- it's just that the league hasn't cracked the code on how to translate all the virtues of the pro game into something people really, really, really want to watch, even in January.

If the NCAA and NFL have taught us one thing, it's that scarcity matters. Simply put, the fewer the games, the more eventful they feel. When games have greater consequences, they're imbued with a special relevance. We congregate with friends, families and sometimes people we merely tolerate to create a community gathering around a game.

But how much does scarcity matter? How would we determine the ideal length of the NBA schedule?

In Economics 101, students learn about the utility or indifference curve, and how to find the sweet spot on the graph where a product's availability matches market demand.

Right now, there are 82 games. Why? Because it's been that way for decades. But "been that way for decades" -- or tradition -- is generally a lousy way to make decisions or to determine utility. Your local grocery doesn't buy inventory for the frozen food aisle based on purchasing and sales figures from 1972. The smart retailer constantly evaluates and re-evaluates consumer demand. People's habits change and a product that was a good loss leader 10 years ago might not be one now.

If we assume that 82 games is too many to achieve our goal of increasing interest, it's safe to say that 16 games are too few. A 76-game schedule would eliminate many of the "schedule losses" that come when exhausted teams roll into a far-off city at the tail end of a road trip, but what about something more radical -- say a 44-game schedule:

Let's play 44

An NBA team would play twice a week:

  • One mid-week game: National doubleheaders on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the remaining 22 teams playing on Wednesday night -- which would also feature the current nationally televised double-header, with the remaining 18 teams playing on local television outlets. Mondays and Fridays are essentially travel days.

  • One weekend game: Teams playing on Saturday and Sunday. Following the NFL season, the NBA's Sunday schedule would feature a quintuple-header, with the remaining teams playing on Saturday.

Teams would play conference rivals twice -- home and away -- and inter-conference opponents just once. Since that equals an awkwardly-numbered 43 games, the extra contest would be an additional matchup with an inter-conference opponent. The team that finished No. 1 the previous season in the Western Conference would play its counterpart in the East a second time; No. 2 would play No. 2, etc. This doesn't offer the balancing act the NFL performs to give lesser teams an easier schedule while planting land mines for the juggernauts, but it's something.

Take into account the All-Star break and you have a 23-week season that would extend from approximately Nov. 1 through the first week in April, virtually identical to what we have now.

In the current scheme, it's difficult to answer the question, "When does your NBA team play?"

Tuesdays? Sometimes. Every other day? Occasionally it works out that way. Sundays? It depends.

A twice-a-week format (once during the week/once over the weekend) would provide the NBA with the comfy consistency we see in the NFL schedule (once a week) and Major League Baseball schedule (every day). In the process, the NBA would have at least 88 nationally televised dates prior to the postseason -- dates that feature games of far greater magnitude. Inter-conference matchups become real novelties. The days of the dreaded second-night-of-a-back-to-back would be history.

Revenue costs up front, but a better product

Clearly, a 44-game schedule wouldn't come without a cost. The hit would be especially hard for teams like the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics who have lucrative television deals. Both local broadcast revenues and gate receipts (and associated game-night revenue) would be drastically reduced, but some of that revenue would be recaptured with increased ticket prices tighter and healthier national ratings right off the bat.

That's still a tough sell to the owners -- and it might be a tougher sell to the players if fewer games meant smaller paychecks, even if less wear-and-tear could translate into longer, healthier careers. And try telling a small-market owner that the Lakers or Heat will appear in their building only once every other year.

But fewer games would introduce the kind of randomness that makes the NCAA Tournament and the NFL so tantalizing. When you play fewer games with higher stakes, a couple of bounces here and there over the course of a season can vault Cinderella to the ball. A greater number of teams would hang around the playoff chase later into the season. For a league that insists an NFL-like "competitive balance" is a priority, a shorter schedule that encourages parity is the place to start.

In an era when the league's fortunes are driven by broadcast revenues, a 44-game schedule during which rested athletes are playing their best basketball in front of more vested fans would create a superior product the NBA could televise to a global audience with more capacity than ever to tune in. A nod toward a made-for-broadcast schedule would go a long way toward evenly distributing the NBA's dominant income stream, because local television rights would be secondary to the global reach of a superior product.

The Lakers aren't playing the majority of their games for the Los Angeles and San Diego markets at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on a weeknight. Instead, they're playing half their games (each of which is twice as meaningful) as the showcase event at 12:30 p.m. Pacific, 3:30 p.m. Eastern and 8:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time on a Saturday or Sunday. Everyone watches, and everyone profits. If the NBA wants that NFL feel -- "competitive balance" driven by non-local broadcast revenue -- this is a far better blueprint than redistribution.

Would 44 games enhance fan interest in the NBA? If so, would that interest translate into greater revenues that would compensate for fewer games? We simply can't say and it's virtually impossible to conduct an experiment.

For all we know, the best way to maximize profits for the NBA, its owners, players, coaches landlords and ushers might be to increase the number of games to 94 -- start in mid-October and host Game 7 of the Finals the weekend before the Major League All-Star Game. More games equal more money, yes?

Ninety-four is just an arbitrary number. And so is 44.

But so is 82.