The NBA becomes an increasingly international league every season, with sets of overseas games in preseason and general increases in popularity expanding its reach considerably. At the same time, the league remains grounded in the habits and customs of North American sports. Apart from the basic fact that English remains the league's predominant language, big games occur at night or on weekend afternoons. Being an international NBA fan in many ways requires an outsized level of effort.
The league is apparently looking into ways to make these fans' lives a little easier. As several NBA teams partake in exhibition games in Beijing, commissioner David Stern said that they are considering shifting some tip-off times to cater to international fans. From Scott Howard-Cooper for NBA.com:
Commissioner David Stern raised the possibility the league will adjust the time some games start in an attempt to appease fans outside North America who now must either stay up late or wake up early to watch games on television.
It’s unclear at this point whether the adjustment will be for regular-season games, preseason games or both.
Speaking before the Warriors beat the Lakers 100-95 before 17,114 at MasterCard Center in the first of two preseason meetings between the teams in China, Stern said former Rockets star Yao Ming brought the idea up in hopes of making future games more accessible to international audiences. Stern gave no indication a decision was near, but was also clear that the league will have to consider what could be a radical suggestion, depending on the new times, at some point.
“I think that the NBA is going to have to wrestle over the next decade as more and more of our viewing audiences are outside the United States is what’s the best time for games to be played so that those fans can enjoy them live as opposed to having to get up in China to watch an NBA game at 7 o’clock in the morning,” Stern said. “I think that’s a fun problem that we’re going to be addressing because so much viewing is happening outside the United States now.”
As Howard-Cooper notes later in his story, this decision would not be particularly popular with fans in North America. Fans are accustomed to a certain schedule, and any changes could be seen as a case of the league turning its back on its core fans in favor of appeasing the margins. (There is perhaps some xenophobia in this view, although it would mostly seem to be a matter of convenience.) Yet it would likely be an even bigger change for the players, whose bodies are conditioned to play the vast majority of their games at a certain time of day.
That said, it's useful to remember that Stern made these comments in China. These overseas preseason games effectively serve as advertisements for the NBA, and any businessman worth anything knows to tell potential customers how much his company values their brand loyalty. It's entirely possible that Stern only mentioned this issue to show Chinese fans that the league is paying attention to their needs and considering all possible methods of tailoring the product to their habits.
On the other hand, the mere fact that this issue is up for debate says a lot about the NBA's future. At some point, broad international popularity and a willingness to pay big money for TV rights will compel the league to make some alterations to its schedule. When that happens, we should remember that habits are always subject to change when the price is right.
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