The NBA celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first-ever game in Mexico this week by hosting a pair of contests in Mexico City, with the Phoenix Suns losing to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday and knocking off the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday. This is the first time ever that the league has held multiple regular-season games south of the border, and to hear NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to tell it, many more could be in store in the years ahead.
“In terms of a franchise in Mexico City, it’s something that we’re going to look at,” Silver said. “This is a competitive market, well over 20 million people. While we have no immediate plans to expand the NBA, one of the things that we look at is whether expanding would be additive to the league as a whole. Clearly coming to Mexico City just because of the huge population here in Mexico but in essence as a gateway to the rest of Latin America could potentially be very important to the league. You clearly have a beautiful state-of-the-art arena here, and you can tell by ticket sales that we have the interest. So that’s something that we will continue to look at.”
“We’re going to look at it” and “we will continue to explore it” have become stock answers to all sorts of questions during Silver’s administration, as David Stern’s successor presents himself as remaining open to every possible avenue for expanding the game’s audience, reach and revenues. Silver has in the past, however, specifically identified Mexico City as “a market we’re particularly focused on” and “a market in the short term we’ll be looking to do more in.”
The NBA has toyed with the idea of placing franchises outside North America for years. Stern said in 2013 he “for sure” expected multiple NBA franchises to be located in Europe within 20 years’ time. Two years ago, Silver reiterated the league’s interest in seizing “an opportunity to bring NBA basketball to Europe on a permanent basis,” saying that while “we have a long way to go before we can sustain four franchises in Europe […] I believe it’s our manifest destiny to expand.”
Given the many logistical problems with actually implementing European expansion — setting up the league-wide and organizational infrastructures needed to be able to effectively function so far removed from the NBA’s day-to-day operations, adding even more travel (and thus likely ratcheting up player fatigue, a growing sticking point among players and an ever–increasing topic of study for teams and media members) to its compressed and overloaded schedule, etc. — it would seem more reasonable to look to comparatively nearby Mexico City as the NBA’s next international play.
“I would love a team down here. I think it would really help the sport,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said before Dallas took on the Suns. ”I would like to come back with the Mavericks, and every time that the NBA asks, we would love to be here.”
And yet, with Silver saying time and again that expansion is not on our agenda right now from a league standpoint” — and with several American cities, most notably Seattle, likely at the head of the line if and when the league does open itself up to the prospect of adding new teams — Silver said he’s more interested in pursuing other avenues to increasing the size of the NBA’s footprint in Mexico. More from Wright:
“I think the next step before we start talking about a franchise in Mexico City is to bring more games here. Of course we’ve had these two regular-season games, and whether we bring additional regular-season games in the next season or do some sort of tournament where you bring over a group of teams and they all play each other in some format — that’s something that we’re looking at,” Silver said.
And, again, from Carlos Rodriguez of The Associated Press:
“As I said before, there’s no market more important for us than Mexico, we already have discussions earlier today about bringing other games here,” Silver said. “But ultimately, it will make more sense to bring more teams rather than just have two teams play each other for a single event, to maybe bring multiple teams and to have some sort of midseason tournament, sort of like a round-robin tournament.”
The NBA did host an annual tournament in Mexico, called “The NBA Challenge,” from 1994 through 1996. But that was a preseason affair. An in-season tournament in Mexico would represent a different kind of undertaking — though one that Silver has been touting, in one form or another, for the past few years.
At the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Silver expressed interest in a sort of postseason play-in tournament, in which some portion of the NBA playoffs would move away from seven-game series toward a win-or-go-home format that would maximize randomness and, theoretically, excitement. A few months later, he said that the league’s competition committee had floated the idea of “a midseason tournament of some sort” to be held in Las Vegas, home of the NBA’s successful annual Summer League.
Just before the start of the 2014-15 season, Silver spoke with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck about that in-season tourney idea, which he said stemmed from world football:
“I and others at the league office have spent a lot of time studying the Champions League for European soccer and other types of cups and mid-season tournaments,” Silver said in the interview. “Now there there’s a long tradition, but maybe there’s the opportunity to create a new tradition. And to create more competitions. Right now everything is about the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but soccer operates a little differently. They have different cups, which may not be as important as the championship, but in their own right are highly significant. […]
“Conceivably, what a mid-season tournament could look like is you have some number of teams — it could begin with all the teams and have a single-elimination type tournament — and this is a case where by floating the idea I got some good suggestions back over the transom, so to speak. It may be a chance to bring in some international clubs,” Silver said.
With all due respect to the commissioner’s interest in creating new traditions, the skeptic in me finds it difficult to believe that NBA players, and the union that represents them, will be especially interested in the idea of adding an in-season tournament to a work schedule that already includes 82 games over a condensed schedule jammed with back-to-backs and cross-time-zone travel that leaves players sleep-deprived and ineffective.
This is why more and more teams are resting their players during the season, and why the league is about to be extend its calendar by seven to 10 days — to reduce back-to-backs, and increase the likelihood that players will be available and performing to the best of their ability for every game you buy a ticket to watch. Teams and the league are going that route to improve the overall quality of the product within the confines of the existing framework, because from the league’s perspective, whittling down the 82-game schedule — thus reducing the amount of money teams take in at the gate and in concessions at their arenas each season, and potentially impacting other revenue streams — continues to be a non-starter. (Whether the players who have called for a reduction of the 82-game slate would be on-board for an associated pay cut, of course, is another question.)
We’re sure basketball fans in Mexico City, who turned out in droves to watch Devin Booker show out against Dallas and San Antonio, appreciate the commish continuing to keep them in mind as the NBA’s quest for global domination continues. We’re not sure, though, that stuffing an NBA version of the League Cup or EuroLeague into an already packed calendar is a solution that serves those fans or the players they want to pay to see.
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