Hawks' Steve Koonin believes starting NBA season in December would help ratings

BOSTON -- Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has a plan to increase the NBA's ratings: start and end the season two months later.

Koonin spoke Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston on a panel about possible changes to the league's schedule. The panel was moderated by ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz.

"Relevance equals revenue," Koonin said. "We've got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.

Under Koonin's proposal, the start of the NBA season would shift from mid-October to mid-December, after college football has completed its regular season and has begun its bowl season. More important, the shift would allow the NBA to avoid having to compete with the NFL's regular season, as it currently does in the first 2½ months before the "unofficial" start to the league's calendar on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, the NBA Finals would take place sometime in August rather than June, with the draft and free agency to come after that. That would again allow the NBA to dominate more of the summer months, when it is going up against only Major League Baseball, instead of fighting with football for territory.

"A big piece is you don't have to reinvent the wheel to enhance ratings," Koonin said. "Sometimes, moving away from competition is a great way to grow ratings.

"If King Kong is at your door, you might go out the back door, rather than go out the front and engage in a hand-to-hand fight with King Kong. Many times, at the start of the NBA season, we are competing with arguably the best Thursday Night Football game with the NBA on TNT, our marquee broadcast, and we get crushed and we wonder why.

"It's because at the beginning of the season, there's very little relevance for the NBA. The relevance is now. That's when people are talking about it."

For Koonin's proposal -- or any significant change to the schedule -- to take effect, it would require buy-in from all sides impacted by it, including the league's teams, its players and its broadcast partners. A natural point at which to make such a change would be the installation of the league's next collective bargaining agreement; the current CBA runs through the 2023-24 season. Another potential point would be the NBA's next media rights deal; the current one goes through the 2024-25 season.

More important than Koonin's proposing the change, though, is that Evan Wasch, the NBA's senior vice president of strategy and analytics, said the league was open to such an idea -- as well as others that could reshape how the NBA's regular season plays out.

"We certainly have no issue with reconsidering the calendar," Wasch said. "To Steve's point, you have to think about the other stakeholders. They need to get more comfortable with the Finals in August, rather than June, where traditionally the household viewership is a lot lower. But the flip side of that argument is there hasn't been a lot of premium content in that window, which explains why viewership is lower. We're open to that ... there's no magic to [the season going from] October to June."

Koonin said in markets in the South and Southwest -- such as Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and Washington -- the NFL, college football and even high school football all dominate the sporting consciousness of those cities in the fall and early winter.

"Let football have its time," he said. "Let's have our time, and let's go after it."

That the NBA is even open to such radical talk is a sign that the league's discussions about the potential for big changes -- including those reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe earlier this season, which entailed shortening the regular season to 75 games, creating a "play-in" game for the final playoff spots in each conference and a new midseason tournament -- haven't stopped.

But while the overall length of the schedule remains a hotly debated topic, Wasch said the goal is not just to shorten the schedule for the sake of doing so, but instead to find ways to give more interest to the league's regular season.

"None of the ideas we are talking about now are new ideas," Wasch said. "The question is not, are we just reacting to what's happening with ratings or what's happening with injuries or player loads or things like that. It is a question of, 'Can you make a better product?'

"I think the general consensus is our playoffs are really entertaining, competitive product and teams are going all out in those games and our fans are engaging in it in a way that is commensurate with that. That maybe is not the case for each one of our 1,230 regular-season games.

"For us, the conversation is not just about, 'Do you cut games for the sake of cutting games?' It's, 'Is there a way to use the rest of our calendar that is not the playoff time to create a more exciting product, a more exciting game of basketball?'"

If it's up to Koonin, it isn't a matter of making the game more exciting -- it's simply decreasing the level of competition for viewers.

"Television launches new shows in the fall because that's when the new models of cars are introduced," said Koonin, who spent more than a decade running Turner's family of networks before coming to the Hawks. "The reason the Finals are in June is because there are more ad dollars in the second [fiscal] quarter. Why? It doesn't exist anymore.

"We have built the architecture of our season based on the ad market, not based on the consumer. What I'm saying is look at the spring, look at the summer, look at competing with baseball versus competing with the NFL, create more days, create time for practice, create longer training camps. Create time as your friend, rather than this artificial compression of second-quarter ad dollars being the arbiter for setting up our season."