NBA schedule leaves suspense out of sport

Tom Haberstroh writes about how lack of rest for players harms the NBA product. I suggest you read that, given that it’s good. Of particular interest (to me, possibly to you) is Tom’s section on research done by the ever-sharp Neil Paine:

"Briliant research by 538’s Neil Paine found that we learn as much about the true abilities of an NBA team after 22 games as we do about an MLB team after they play their full 162-game slate. Let that marinate for a second. Twenty-two games. That’s all it takes.”

Tom goes on to remind us of where teams ended up after Christmas Day, an unofficial marker of when the NBA season really gets going.

“Go ahead and pull up the NBA’s standings on Christmas Day last season. There you’ll find the six division leaders were Toronto, Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio. Yes, the exact same ones at the regular-season’s end.”

The NBA season ends before it really begins, apparently. I hate telling you this because hey, I’d prefer you pay attention to whatever I’m babbling about after December. Unfortunately you have license to tune out my, and any other, basketball commentary when we change the calendar. You don’t even need to necessarily watch the games, either. Sure you’d miss a lot of highlight plays, but you’d be about as informed as regular viewers regarding which teams are the best in their conferences.

The games are fun to watch, but they lack the urgency that comes with a loss actually derailing a season and mattering in a broader context. These fun-to-watch games would be even more fun to watch if they carried such suspense.

Moreover, the NBA season is just plain l-o-n-g. If variety is the spice of life, scarcity is the spice of sports. And basketball isn’t scarce at all. There’s a steady stream of televised games, nearly every night, for six months.

What’s funny is that Nike, the apparel company making the most money off basketball, totally gets how important scarcity is. For years it has been artificially producing fewer specialty shoes than demand calls for.

Maybe you like having 82 games. I understand that, as someone who can feel lost without the comforting metronome of a basketball thudding through my TV speakers. I don’t think we’re normal for that inclination, though, and the NBA’s probably turning off a whole bunch of casual sports fans who would be drawn in if regular-season games were big events. Imagine the ratings if the NBA adopted the Arnovitz plan of a 44-game season, with games landing only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and an added nationally televised showcase game on the weekends. All-time records would be impacted by a shortened season, but Michael Jordan managed to convince people of his pre-eminence without ever catching Kareem in scoring.

Here’s where you say, “What about the lost revenue in cutting all those games?” I hear that, but the NFL makes more TV money off its 16-game season than the NBA makes off 82 games.

The NBA might not want the NFL’s current headlines, but it certainly wants its success. It’s no coincidence that the league is installing NFL-like replay review and bowing before the altar of parity. What the NBA isn’t willing to do, though, is take that which actually fuels its bigger brother’s success. It’s not willing to cut back on an overlong season in the interest of driving interest.

As a once-huge NFL fan, I remember going to a preseason Chargers-Seahawks game and getting struck by how boring it was when deprived of stakes. There’s a lot of dead time in football, dull moments that are pregnant with tension when the result matters. Divorced from suspense, from coaches clinging to their jobs, from star quarterbacks facing down the heat of media scrutiny, from the entire season hanging on a single play, the action on the field isn’t intrinsically all that interesting. You can watch some guys play basketball in the park and be reasonably entertained. That’s partially why the league can trudge along with its overlong season and get by. Football needs stakes. I would argue that much if not most of football’s entertainment factor lies in the sense that one sudden play can mean a lot.

The NBA’s regular season lacks that, and frankly, so do the first couple rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Basketball starts in the fall and has no stakes until it gets to the spring. NBA owners are making money, as nearly all major sports are in the DVR era, so perhaps the status quo satisfies the powers that be. But this wonderful sport is likely a lot less popular than it could be, given that its season is roughly four times longer than it needs to be. If NBA owners were a bit more bold, they’d discover that less is more.